OKLAHOMA CITY — LeBron James is quickly racking up MVP awards while Kevin Durant is collecting scoring titles at the same pace.
Either could make a case as the best player in the NBA.
Neither is interested in anything beyond team accomplishments.
One of them is about to get the only crown he craves, their head-to-head duel the leading story line of the NBA Finals that begin tonight when Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder host James and the Miami Heat.
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said Monday. “I think it’s going to be two players that’s going to be tough to guard each other, that’s going to have to guard each other.”
Both insist the series is more than an individual matchup and the All-Star talent around them support the claim. But the focus will be on James, the three-time MVP in his third shot at a championship, and Durant, the three-time scoring champion who is playing for his first at age 23.
It’s the first time the MVP and scoring champ have met in the Finals since 1997, when Michael Jordan’s Bulls knocked off MVP Karl Malone and Utah.
“Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup of me versus LeBron, but it’s the Thunder versus the Heat,” Durant said. “One guy versus another guy, it’s not going to be a 1-on-1 matchup to win the series, it’s going to be all about the team.”
They are friends and workout partners, play the same small forward position and are blessed with unlimited basketball talent. After years of waiting on a James-Kobe Bryant matchup in the Finals that never materialized, the league gets one that’s perhaps even better, if not quite as sexy, to wrap up a successful season after a lockout.
“It’s great for the NBA,” Miami’s Shane Battier said. “I anticipate record ratings, which is great, so maybe we can get some of the escrow check back from the owners. First and foremost, that’s why I’m excited to see Kevin Durant versus LeBron James. But selfish reasons aside, it’s just a great matchup.
“There’s so many young, great players in this league and established players and All-Stars. If you’re a basketball fan, you’re missing out if you’re not watching this series.”
Both have sworn off Twitter, at least for the time being, James posted his last message on April 27 and Durant on May 1.
For now, KingJames and KDTrey5 will stick to making their statements on the court.
“Kevin is locked in on what he needs to do to help the team win,” Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook said. “It’s going to be a great series for both teams and hopefully we can come out with the win.”
James is back for a third crack at his first championship, his Cleveland Cavaliers swept aside by San Antonio in 2007 just a couple of weeks before Durant was drafted by the then-Seattle SuperSonics with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
James fell short again last year in his first season with Miami, then carried the Heat to another chance with victories in the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, starting with a sensational, 45-point, 15-rebound Game 6 performance in Boston.
“You know, third time in the Finals in nine years, there’s a lot of guys who don’t get there once,” Wade said. “Of course, that right there in itself is an honor. But you want to win one. Obviously, LeBron wants to win a championship. … I’m sure he will try to seize it a little bit better than he did the first two times.”
A disappointment last year in the Heat’s six-game loss to Dallas, James has said he’s been in a better frame of mind this season and is looking forward making up for his previous failure.
“I didn’t play well. I didn’t make enough game-changing plays that I know I’m capable of making and I felt like I let my teammates down,” he said.
“I’m happy and I’m humbled that I can actually be back in this position less than 12 months later … . So we’ll see what happens.”
Though the core of Durant, Westbrook, sixth man of the year James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all 23 or younger, the Thunder enters as the favorite in its first Finals appearance since moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle in 2008.
Oklahoma City has watched Durant grow up from the player who arrived as the rookie of the year. He received some guidance along the way from James, who reached out to him as a high school player and then invited him to his home in Akron, Ohio, to work out last summer.
“For me, I understood … the situation he was getting himself into being drafted as high (as) he was, and the things that came with being drafted to a team that needed a marquee player or superstar,” James said.
“Our relationship is really good and I’m happy to be in this position where I can compete against him.”
Only one can be considered the best player in the game, and it’s probably the guy who walks out of this series as a champion.
“I think it’s going to bring the best out of both of them, and it’s going to be the best for the game,” Wade said, “and it’s going to be a great show.”
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
James will try to add the Finals MVP trophy to the regular-season award he beat out Durant to claim. Whoever’s team wins the series earns an advantage in the debate about who is the best player in the game. Besides everything he has to do offensively, James must use his considerable defensive skills to slow down Durant, who won his third straight scoring title this season. James is the top scorer in the postseason, averaging 30.8 points.
Key matchup II: Serge Ibaka vs. Shane Battier and Chris Bosh
Ibaka, the league’s leading shot blocker and runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, has turned into more than just a one-way player. His 11-for-11 shooting, including a number of jumpers, in the Thunder’s Game 4 victory over San Antonio helped even the Western Conference finals, and his 55.6 shooting percentage is tops in the playoffs among players who advanced past the first round. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will have to decide whether to return Bosh to the starting lineup or stay with Battier, and both looked like good choices in Miami’s Game 7 victory over Boston. Bosh scored 19 points and made three 3-pointers in his third game back after a nine-game absence because of a lower abdominal injury, while Battier nailed four 3-pointers.
X-factor: Kendrick Perkins
The Thunder’s center doesn’t have the offensive game of Indiana’s Roy Hibbert or the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, centers who have hurt the Heat in this postseason. But Perkins had his best offensive game of the season with 16 points in the Thunder’s regular-season victory over the Heat. If he provides any type of scoring in this series, it will cause problems for a Heat team that hasn’t been able to settle on or stay committed to a center option all season. MIami HEAT VS. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER Best-of-seven, all games on Ch. 4, * if necessary
GAME 1: TODAY
At Oklahoma City, 6 p.m.
GAME 2: ThursDAY
At Oklahoma City, 6 p.m.
GAME 3: SUNDAY
At Miami, 5 p.m.
GAME 4: June 19
At Miami, 6 p.m.
*GAME 5: JUNE 21
At Miami, 6 p.m.
*GAME 6: JUNE 24
At Oklahoma City, 5 p.m.
*GAME 7: JUNE 26
At Oklahoma City, 6 p.m.The Associated Press