One matchup deserves attention: Durant vs. James

06/11/2012 11:13 PM

07/05/2012 7:43 PM

It's the most anticipated NBA Finals matchup since 1991 when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls met Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

It's even conjuring up images of record-breaking TV ratings, of Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics facing Johnson and the Lakers in the 1984, '85 and '87 NBA Finals. That's what this year's NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat has developed into.

Kevin Durant is the Thunder's brightest star, and this year became just the seventh player in NBA history to win the scoring title three consecutive seasons.

Meanwhile, James' star is just as bright after he won the league's Most Valuable Player award for the third time in four years.

Now, with so much at stake, the two combatants go head-to-head starting at 8 tonight when Game 1 of the best-of-seven NBA Finals begins in Oklahoma City.

James and Durant are arguably the game's two best players. And as the basketball gods would have it, they play the same position, so they'll spend a lot of time guarding each other.

"That's good basketball, to see Kevin and LeBron go at each other," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's a matchup that it definitely will be enjoyable to see, and see how it turns out."

Reputations, legacies and multimillion dollar endorsement deals are certainly on the line. Well, at least James' reputation and legacy will be up for debate, since he boldly stated when he joined the Heat in 2010 that Miami would win "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" championships.

But while the world is buzzing about the Durant-James marquee matchup, the principal parties involved seem oblivious to the wall-to-wall attention. James said he hasn't read the newspapers, watched TV or been on Twitter since the playoffs started. Ditto for Durant.

"...I don't read the newspapers and I don't get on Twitter anymore," Durant said. "I just focus on what I need to do and what we need to do as a team."

James' teammate, Dwyane Wade, is definitely giddy about witnessing James waging a battle against Durant.

"I think it's going to be a great matchup," Wade said. "I look forward to seeing what my teammate has going against one of the best players. I'm glad that he has that challenge because it's going to make him focused more; it's going to make him play a little different."

James invited Durant -- and he accepted -- to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, last summer so the dynamic duo could work out during the NBA lockout before this season. Their relationship, though, had been formed far before then.

"Our relationship has been growing since he was in high school, all the way through Texas, and all his years in the NBA," James said. "For me, I understood what the situation he was getting himself into, being drafted as high as he was and the things that came with being drafted by a team that needed a marquee player or a superstar.

"From Day One, I always kind of laid my hand out to guide him if he needed it, to help him, to mentor him if he needed it, through anything. And that's on and off the court, because to that point I've seen everything."

During those tough and long workouts in Akron, neither James nor Durant envisioned they would meet in the Finals. And both kept sidestepping questions during Media Day on Monday concerning their individual matchups.

"Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup -- me vs. LeBron," Durant said. "But it's the Thunder vs. the Heat. It's not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series. It's going to be all about the team, so it's going to be fun."

For the star player whose team wins the series, it will be fun. Because that means -- fair or not -- he will be crowned as the world's best player, which is something James claims he couldn't care less about.

"I don't really get involved in who's the best player in the game," James said. "It doesn't matter to me, really. 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."

Maybe not. But John Q. Public cares.

"They're both great players, they both can score in so many different ways, they both have developed every year and they both are going to continue to get better," Brooks said. "They both are very driven and hungry basketball players."

And at the end of this series, either Durant or James will be the star that shines the brightest.

Dwain Price, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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