By Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times –
OKLAHOMA CITY — Of course it would happen, not quite as organically as Larry versus Magic, where the legendary rivalry was constructed in college and bounced from there, but LeBron James and Kevin Durant could finally face each other with something on the line.
One of them gets his first NBA championship by the end of the month, the mutual pursuit of it possibly the only thing they have in common.
It moves well beyond the city versus country angle, where mental images of James playing in front of wealthy mojito-sipping Miami fans counteract humorously with the smaller-town way of life in Oklahoma City, where the state governor welcomed TV analyst Charles Barkley to a recent playoff game with a pair of pricey alligator-skin cowboy boots after he rode in on a horse among cheering Thunder fans.
James and Durant go beyond the cheeky stuff, which will be put away by the time the Heat and Thunder begin the NBA Finals on Tuesday.
Much of their personality differences can be culled from a telling week in July 2010.
James announced his pending move from Cleveland to Miami via the well-documented TV fiasco “The Decision.” Then he followed it up with The Celebration, where he joined new teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a loud, gaudy, fog machine-filled introduction to Heat fans at Miami’s arena.
A day before “The Decision,” Durant quietly signed a five-year contract extension with the Thunder, announcing it on his Twitter account by saying, “God Is Great, me and my family came a long way.”
Even the structure of their contracts sets them apart.
James’ deal is littered with opt-outs before it ends in 2016, and he can become a free agent before either of its final two seasons.
Not Durant. There are no opt-outs. He’s property of the Thunder until 2016.
If America had a vote, it would be cast for the friendly and inconspicuous Durant, who upended increasingly negative coverage of the NBA lockout for one night by randomly playing flag football with Oklahoma State college students last October.
“Kevin Durant is what’s great about our game right now,” said NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony, a former NBA player. “Any time you have a player who is as likable off the court as he is effective on it, that bodes well for the game.”
James is used to his role as the NBA’s villain, his superior skill often overshadowed by anybody outside South Florida delighting in his failures, of which there have been some.
This is James’ third trip to the Finals. He was 22 when Cleveland was overpowered by San Antonio in 2007, a sweep ending his first trip to the Finals. Miami lost to Dallas last season in six games.
Durant, 23, has never been this far. He isn’t just happy to be here.
“Of course everybody is going to say it’s not our time, we’re too young, it’s going to happen eventually, but that’s not the approach we ever want to take with anything,” he said. “I learned that when I was a kid. My mom always told me when I was going against older guys, ‘Don’t let your age be the reason why you don’t succeed.’
“We were too young to beat the Spurs, a great team, and we came out and accomplished that. We were too young to beat the Lakers, and we accomplished that as well.”
Indeed, Oklahoma City is younger and better rested than Miami.
Russell Westbrook, like Durant, is only 23. James Harden and Serge Ibaka are 22.
The Thunder flipped the switch incredibly quickly against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals, winning four in a row after losing the first two games. Before that, they beat the Lakers in five and Dallas in four.
Miami has played three more playoff games than the Thunder, needing five to beat New York, six to eliminate Indiana and the full seven against the aged Boston Celtics.
Miami spotted the Celtics a 3-2 series lead before winning the final two games by an average of 16 points, including James’ one-man show in a 98-79 victory in Game 6 (45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists).
Before Game 6, when it appeared the Celtics would hobble into the NBA Finals, there was media chatter of the need to break up the Heat nucleus.
Now James, who’s remarkably only 27, gets to hear about Durant, whom he handily beat in voting for the regular-season most-valuable-player award.
“I don’t really care what people say at the end of this series if KD or LeBron is the best player in the league,” said James, a three-time league MVP. “It has to happen at some point anyways. I won’t be the best player in the league, KD will be, and then KD won’t be the best player in the league at some point.”
Durant reluctantly goes along with the Finals being boiled down to two players.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s a sexier matchup, I guess,” he said.
They aren’t exactly enemies.
James invited Durant to Ohio for workouts last summer and they also played in a high-profile pickup game at Morgan State in Maryland, where Durant reportedly had 59 points but lost to James’ team. They’ll be USA Basketball teammates when the Olympics open next month.
But this month either marks the successful end of a steady two-month run by the Thunder and its stunningly young core. Or it’s a stately victory (finally) for King James.