LeBron James and Kevin Durant are young enough and good enough to develop a rivalry that might mirror Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
MIAMI -- Just before LeBron James sat in that director's chair, with his checkered shirt and his impassive gaze, and made the declaration that torpedoed his Q rating, another young NBA superstar quietly tapped out his own intentions on a keyboard.
"Extension for 5 more years with the Thunder," Kevin Durant wrote on his Twitter account on July 7, 2010. He thanked God. He called it a blessing.
The next night, James commandeered a national television network to announce he would "take my talents to South Beach."
The contrast was vivid and irresistible, a gift to the growing LeBron James demonization industry and fodder for screaming pundits everywhere. At that moment, James embodied all the worst traits of the modern athlete: detachment, self- absorption, egomania. Durant represented virtue, humility, subtlety.
It was a cheap, easy narrative that had some basis in reality but was too eagerly stretched into an overwrought morality play: Durant vs. James, for the soul of the game.
They were not truly rivals then -- in morality or basketball -- but the comparisons today are now unavoidable, and so much more relevant and compelling. Durant and James will meet in the NBA Finals beginning Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, in a dream matchup for the ages.
They are the two most dynamic and versatile players in the league -- scorers who love to pass, forwards who play like guards, each thoroughly committed to defense and teamwork and all of basketball's best virtues. Either one can take over a game, and will when necessary, but neither one demands it.
Durant has won three consecutive scoring titles, narrowly beating James in two of the three years. James has won three of the past four Most Valuable Player trophies, beating Durant for the award this year.
They even play the same position, small forward, which means that more often than not James and Durant actually will guard each other as they wrestle for the championship over the next two weeks.
Several other young stars will have a say in this series: Russell Westbrook and James Harden for the Thunder, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Heat. But at the core of this series will be Durant -- lanky, long-limbed and sleek, at 6-9, 215 pounds; and James -- broad and bruising at 6-8 and 240.
Rivals by necessity, the two share a friendship and a mutual respect that contradicts all of the caricatures. In the dark, drab days of the lockout last summer, James invited Durant to join him for workouts in Akron, Ohio, his hometown. They spent four days together, training twice a day, sprinting, stretching and sweating in a regimen they dubbed Hell Week.
That they are, all these months later, about to meet for the championship is no surprise to either of them.
"I envisioned it every day we worked out," James said. "I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was. We pushed each other every single day."
The workouts were documented on video and uploaded to YouTube, where fans can see James and Durant sprinting across a football field, bouncing in a pool, lifting weights, shooting three-pointers, stretching with resistance bands, smiling, laughing. In one clip, the two are walking on treadmills, side by side, in perfect rhythm as they swing weight balls from hip to hip. Between muscle burns, the two bonded over a common source of anguish.
"He was a little upset about the series in Dallas, where they got eliminated by Dallas," James said, "and I was as well. So we pushed each other each and every day."
The Mavericks had eliminated the Thunder in five games in the Western Conference finals last spring before taking out the Heat in six games for the title. So here were Dirk Nowitzki's two final victims, plotting their vengeance together while league and union negotiators argued over repeater taxes.
The Thunder swept the Mavericks to start this playoff run, then plowed through another old tormentor, the Lakers, in five games before taking out one of the West's most storied teams, the Spurs, in the conference finals.
James earned his chance at redemption by vanquishing the Celtics, who had denied him so many times while in Cleveland that, it can be argued, they forced his move to South Beach.
So these finals represent a generational shift, too -- the apparent end of the Lakers-Celtics-Spurs-Mavericks era and the start of a potentially fantastic and enduring Thunder-Heat rivalry. Oklahoma City's core players (Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka) are all 23 or younger. James is 27, Bosh 28 and Wade 30.
In a league of trumped-up, often fleeting rivalries, James vs. Durant has the potential to become truly transcendent, like Magic vs. Bird and Russell vs. Chamberlain. This is a rare thing in the age of unfettered free agency and overexpansion. Michael Jordan had no single rival while fighting for his six rings. Shaquille O'Neal's positional rivals all retired by the time he started winning championships. Kobe Bryant beat five different teams in the finals and never met a single player who could claim to be his rival. The same goes for Tim Duncan, who beat four different teams to win his titles.
But James-Durant is bursting with possibility and depth -- friends becoming rivals, fighting for NBA supremacy for the next 10 years.
|Philadelphia - LP: K. Kendrick||2||FINAL|
|Washington - WP: J. Zimmermann||5|
|Baltimore - WP: C. Tillman||10||FINAL|
|Toronto - LP: S. Nolin||6|
|Minnesota - LP: S. Deduno||0||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: A. Sanchez||6|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: S. Feldman||4||FINAL|
|Cincinnati - WP: B. Arroyo||7|
|Cleveland - LP: J. Masterson||1||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: J. Lackey||8|
|NY Yankees - WP: D. Phelps||9||FINAL|
|Tampa Bay - LP: R. Hernandez||4|
|Pittsburgh - LP: A. Burnett||1||FINAL|
|Milwaukee - WP: M. Estrada||2|
|Miami - LP: R. Webb||3||FINAL|
|Chicago WSox - WP: N. Jones||4|
|LA Angels - WP: J. Vargas||5||FINAL|
|Kansas City - LP: L. Hochevar||2|
|Oakland - WP: P. Neshek||6||FINAL|
|Houston - LP: J. Veras||5|
|San Diego - LP: E. Stults||2||FINAL|
|Arizona - WP: B. McCarthy||5|
|St. Louis - WP: L. Lynn||7||FINAL|
|Los Angeles - LP: C. Capuano||0|
|Texas - WP: J. Grimm||9||FINAL|
|Seattle - LP: J. Saunders||5|
|Colorado - WP: T. Chatwood||5||FINAL|
|San Francisco - LP: T. Lincecum||0|
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