A new era in the NBA arrived at long last, and it took two men to deliver it. Last Saturday, Heat small forward LeBron James iced the Celtics with an 11-point fourth quarter in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Three days earlier Thunder small forward Kevin Durant did his part against the Spurs of Tim Duncan, knocking them out in Game 6 of the Western finals and denying their bid for a fifth title. That performance came after Oklahoma City had taken out the defending champion Mavericks and the five-ringed Lakers. Between them, James and Durant vanquished 11 of the past 13 champs. All in the name of progress.
James, 27, and Durant, 23, are the seminal players of this post-Kobe era, and each is seeking his first title at the other's expense. The last Finals to launch a new generation with so much anticipation and promise was the showdown of the Lakers and the Celtics in 1984, when Magic Johnson succumbed to Larry Bird over seven memorable games. Magic would avenge himself by beating Larry in the Finals of '85 and '87, and all their 14-year rivalry did was to save the NBA and set standards of leadership, teamwork and integrity that Durant and James will be seeking to reaffirm.
These Finals are not only a dream showdown for the league—TV ratings for the Western Conference finals were up 13% over last year's, and Game 7 of the East finals was the highest-rated playoff game ever on cable—but also mark the start of basketball played from a new, less hostile point of view. Magic and Larry were traditional enemies, dating back to their 1979 NCAA title game (also won by Magic), but they became friends and co-captains of the Dream Team. LeBron and Kevin are already close, having been raised in the more fraternal environment of AAU basketball that has transformed the game. Last November, Durant spent four days in Akron working out with James, where they consoled each other about their shared troubles with the veteran Mavs, who had outsmarted the Thunder last spring before upsetting the Heat in the Finals. "We pushed each other each and every day," said James. "I envisioned us getting to this point."
Unlike Johnson (a point guard) and Bird (a small forward), who rarely guarded each other, the 6'8", 250-pound James and the 6'9", 235-pound Durant will match up for a majority of their minutes. They should be aware that competition can be the ruin of any friendship. Johnson began the 1988 Finals kissing Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas on the cheek. Before they knew it, Magic was clobbering Isiah as he drove through the lane, Isiah was throwing the ball at his best friend in retaliation, and today the two hardly talk.
For now the friendship between James and Durant stands as proof that opposites really do attract. Durant is a naturally ruthless finisher, a closer who is every bit as mean in the final minutes as he is nice off the court. James is at heart a playmaker who was blessed with the physical gifts of Michael Jordan yet desired instead to fulfill his own egalitarian vision of Magic creating for himself and others. Lately, the two have been trying to emulate each other's games: Durant has become a better defender and passer as well as OKC's leading rebounder, while James has shown more willingness to hunt for his shot in the game's final minutes rather than play the playmaker. Facing elimination after three straight losses to the Celtics, James carried the Heat to this Finals with a virtuoso 45-point performance in Game 6 in Boston, which he followed with a dominant fourth quarter to conclude Miami's comeback win in Game 7.
Durant's ascent to the highest of basketball stages has been steady and straightforward. After being taken No. 2 by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007 (one year before the franchise moved to Oklahoma), he was named Rookie of the Year despite suffering 62 losses. His team's winning percentage has risen each of the last four seasons along with his reputation, and the only controversy he's had to deflect has been the occasional question of whether he can coexist with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook.
James knows better than anyone that achieving success isn't as easy as Durant has made it appear. Ever since James, the top pick in 2003, led his Cavaliers to the '07 Finals (where they were swept by San Antonio) as a 22-year-old, the trajectory of his career has resembled the flight path of an unknotted balloon. His highs have included three MVPs in the last four years, offset by the plummeting lows produced by his decision to televise The Decision two years ago, at which time he was making a fool of himself by boasting that a run of multiple championships alongside Wade and Bosh would happen naturally. To see the ruggedness in James's game—he buried Boston by posting up, backing in and drawing fouls far more relentlessly than in last year's Finals, when he turned passive in fourth quarters against Dallas—is to recognize that the harm he did to himself likely forced him to acquire the toughness and focus he always needed.
Just because James has endured more pain than his friend doesn't necessarily mean he will prevail against Durant. The Thunder has the advantage in length, with 6'10" defensive towers in center Kendrick Perkins and power forward Serge Ibaka. That size, however, doesn't translate into a low-post presence at the other end of the floor. The Heat, lacking OKC's depth, will need extraordinary performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in order to create opportunities for Mario Chalmers to slash and Shane Battier to make threes. The Thunder will be counting on the defense of Perkins, Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha to open up the floor and keep Westbrook out of the half-court, where his management of the offense can stagnate.
These Finals defy prediction. In its initiation of a rivalry that has been long anticipated, there is no history from which to draw. Neither Durant nor James can know for sure what the other is capable of accomplishing in this series, because they've never put each other to the ultimate test. And so the new era begins.