Two of NBA's best will face off for one ring

Miami's Dwyane Wade (left) and LeBron James are in the NBA Finals again - and all the pressure is on them.
Miami's Dwyane Wade (left) and LeBron James are in the NBA Finals again - and all the pressure is on them. (LYNNE SLADKY / AP)
Posted: June 12, 2012

Several weeks before this season even started, Miami's LeBron James and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant were competing against each other. Hell Week, they called it, a four-day series of grueling workouts.

Starting Tuesday, they'll meet again. They'll call that the NBA Finals.

Neither was playing at the level that they are now when James invited Durant to work out with him during the NBA lockout in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Now as James tries to win his first ring, fittingly, Durant is in his way.

"It's only right. It's only right," James said. "We look forward to the challenge."

James played at a rarely seen level in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. According to STATS LLC, James became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 to have six 30-point games in a playoff series. In Game 4 - the one contest where he didn't score 30 - James finished with 29.

Criticized last season for deferring too often in crucial situations, James went into the offseason driven by the pain of failing in the NBA Finals.

And even during the lockout, he did anything he could to improve - two-a-day workouts, studying with Hakeem Olajuwon, yoga, boxing, beach sprints, even asking Durant to come to Akron for a few days for some training.

In those sessions, they pushed each other to the limit. "Me and KD, man, just tryin' to get better," James said in a video of one workout posted online.

They both understood the other perfectly.

James and the Heat lost to Dallas in last season's Finals. Durant and the Thunder lost to Dallas in last season's Western Conference finals. This probably couldn't have been scripted any better. Maybe the two best players in the world, scarred by similar disappointment, trying to make the other better.

And when the final series of the season begins Tuesday in Oklahoma City, they'll each have a close-up view of how far the other has come.

"It's going to be a battle," Durant said.

The Heat and Thunder split two games during the regular season, both winning at home. Durant scored the most points in the NBA this season at 1,850, James was second with 1,683. James won the MVP award, Durant finished second in that balloting. And in these finals, one will finish first again, the other will finish second again.

There's probably little argument that James and Durant have been the premier players in this postseason. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, while Durant is at 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists.

But while Durant is celebrated for what he's doing as a 23-year-old on the rise in a small market, James gets the constant reminder of how he's a 27-year-old without a championship despite moving to Miami.

Those around James say the scrutiny drives him.

James, for his part, says he does his best to ignore it all.

"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person," James said. "People can have their own opinions, and rightfully so. They can have their own opinions. For me I just go out and play at a high level, and do whatever it takes for us to win."

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