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NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

Jun 22, 2012, 2:35 AM EST

Oklahoma City Thunder's Durant reacts after not getting a foul call against the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter during Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Oklahoma City Reuters

For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

  1. badintent - Jun 22, 2012 at 2:46 AM

    Cavs fans, choke on it !!Danny Gilbert, take out another bill board with just your face so people can throw mud at it !! haha. Somewhere, Shaq is laughing at Charles. Too bad Shaq didn’t bring the King a ring but Shaq can throw mud at Kobe for the next 10 years on TNT

  2. camnellum12 - Jun 22, 2012 at 2:47 AM

    This may just be me, but the OKC Thunder really sound like the 2009 Magic. After Orlando lost to LA in 5 games, everyone was saying “Dwight is only 23 years old, once he learns post moves and his team gets more experience, they’ll be back.” Now look at the Magic, they’re depleted, Howard may not even stay, and Orlando lost some key players that helped them get to the ’09 Finals. Now I’m not saying that OKC won’t be back, but some players won’t return, an injury to a key player of the team can occur, and everything else. To be honest, the NBA Finals are up for grabs, you’ll never expect who’ll be in it, but I do love the LeBron-Durant match up.

    Look at this interview, didn’t OKC say the same things tonight? And spare me the “it’s the typical thing to say” speech, it’s too coincidental. http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=txnbafinalsmagic

    • scalfor3 - Jun 22, 2012 at 12:39 PM

      durant is miles better than howard, orlando didn’t have a number 2 close to westbrook or harden, and the two stars are signed to long term deals. other than that yeah, their exactly the same.

    • passerby23 - Jun 22, 2012 at 1:06 PM

      This is my feeling exactly. There are no guarantees. The Thunder are going to have to cough up big money to keep Harden and Ibaka – money they probably won’t have to spend. If either of them walks, they are significantly weaker. Injuries can be devastating. The Magic in 2009 caught lightning in a bottle. I wouldn’t call the Thunder the 2009 Magic, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that they will be there every year. The Thunder could be like the Bulls teams who couldn’t get past the Pistons teams in the late 80s for years.

      If Dallas reloads next year, they might be the team to beat. Boston could be better. Nothing is for certain.

  3. canehouse - Jun 22, 2012 at 2:51 AM

    Durant is special… but The KING took Durant to a red carpet two step jig jagg! His time shall pass too!

  4. diablito0402 - Jun 22, 2012 at 3:23 AM

    Shaq throw mud at kobe for 10 years? Wow have another beer and relax,, kobe has 5 rings shaq 4, he has no room to talk because he will always have more rings than shaq, as far for lebron, he has about 3 to 5 years left until his body starts to break down. I dont think he will win 4 more in a row..

    • edweird0 - Jun 22, 2012 at 5:28 AM

      Except for that little fact that A) Kobe woulda never gotten 3 of those rings were it not for Shaq & B) Shaq has three consecutive FINALS MVP, Kobe wishes he could say the same.

      • shockexchange - Jun 22, 2012 at 8:52 AM

        Horry, Jr. has had someone carrying him his entire career. First there was Shaq, then there was Pau and Bynum.

      • loungefly74 - Jun 22, 2012 at 9:07 AM

        same can be said that Shaq woulda never gotten 3 of those rings were it not for Kobe. Please…that arguement for any one single player is silly.

      • shockexchange - Jun 22, 2012 at 10:32 AM

        Loungefly74 You could say that about Shaq, but it wouldn’t be true. Shaq led Orlando to the finals before he ever went to L.A. And if he had stayed in Orlando you would be ridin’ Penny Hardaway instead of Horry, Jr.

      • loungefly74 - Jun 22, 2012 at 11:45 AM

        oh..i see the illogical haters are in full force today…

        okay…you say that…then say the same for Bird, MJ, MAgic, Russell, etc….

      • shockexchange - Jun 22, 2012 at 11:55 AM

        “Hater” is an overused term. You need to get your vocabulary up. You sure you aren’t Horry, Jr. in disguise. “Bird, Magic, MJ, and Russell did it too.” Now where have we heard that line before?

      • loungefly74 - Jun 22, 2012 at 12:39 PM

        what are you talkin about? dam..dude, why do i even talk to you? youre idiotic.

        “You could say that about Shaq, but it wouldn’t be true. Shaq led Orlando to the finals before he ever went to L.A. And if he had stayed in Orlando you would be ridin’ Penny Hardaway instead of Horry, Jr.”

        WHAT?

        ““Hater” is an overused term. You need to get your vocabulary up. You sure you aren’t Horry, Jr. in disguise. “Bird, Magic, MJ, and Russell did it too.” Now where have we heard that line before?”

        SMH…

        dude…what does that mean? start taking your appropriate amount of pills man.

        my point is no player has won a title by themselves…not even shaq.

        damn dude…talking to you is like talking to a 8 year old.

      • shockexchange - Jun 22, 2012 at 12:58 PM

        Loungefly74 You shouldn’t mention Horry, Jr. in the same sentence with Shaq, Magic, Bird, MJ, or Russell. We both agree that it takes help to win a title.

        Horry, Jr. was the “help.”

  5. funktron2x - Jun 22, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    Spurs fan here with two nuggets:
    1) You’re crazy to compare the Thunder and Magic like that. They have talent for days and are young, hungry and *without drama*. Howard, for all his physical gifts, isn’t nearly the basketball player Durant is, and nobody on those teams is nearly as good as Westbrook or Harden.
    2) Damn right on the article. These two players are by far the best in the league. Sorry DRose, but you can’t shoot like Durant and you can’t play with LeBron’s size and power. They will meet again in the finals. Let’s just hope for the sake of basketball fans everywhere that Harden shows up next time.

    • truthhurtstoo - Jun 22, 2012 at 7:28 AM

      Disagree…. Durant is soft and not tough enough. Thunder is a jump shooting team and that will not win as seen in 5!!

  6. trbowman - Jun 22, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    Thunder fans should be thrilled Brooks didn’t sign the extension. He’s holding that team back with his mind numbing personnel decisions and rotations.

  7. dgbk - Jun 22, 2012 at 5:12 AM

    @ cam

    the magic drew a cavs team that had no answer for howard in the ECF. That team was built on dunks and three pointers no one figured that will last. No one gave them a chance vs the lakers in the finals.

    The thunder not only was given a chance against the heat, many believe they will win. That magic team had a lot of washed up vets alston,carter, j will playin big mins. The Thunder is mostly a young team besides fish and perkins.

    Talent lvl is another huge difference between the two teams. the thunder’s fourth best player(ibaka) will probably be the magics 2nd best player. other than similar statements in defeat they’re nothin alike.

    There were many flaws on how the magic were built which is still hurting them in 2012. The Thunder is built much better to last.

    • camnellum12 - Jun 22, 2012 at 6:13 AM

      I know they’re nothing alike in team structure, I’m saying we shouldn’t over speculate how this team will perform. Next season will probably be the last great chance of the OKC core, because I really don’t see James Harden re-signing in 2014, unless he takes the pay cut. And I’m still not counting out the Spurs either, and we have to stay alert on the Deron Williams scenario with Dallas. OKC is the top team of the West, but the veteran savvy teams will also get better, we can’t count them out either.

      • camnellum12 - Jun 22, 2012 at 6:14 AM

        And Ibaka and Sefolosha are FA’s in 2014 as well, players have to go.

  8. funktron2x - Jun 22, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    When the Magic lost role players, only Howard was left. When the Thunder lose role players, they still have the best scorer in the league plus Westbrook and Harden. This isn’t even funny anymore. Can we stop, please?

  9. 1historian - Jun 22, 2012 at 7:13 AM

    Congratulations to the Heat. They went out and did what they had to do and this morning they are the Champions of the NBA.

    Congratulations especially to LeBron James and Pat Riley. James was scary good – completely focused and NO ONE was going to stop him, and I liked the way Riley stayed in the background while everybody and his damn brother wanted to get some face time on TV. Riley was an integral part of that team. When you have 6 people in double figures you win games.

    OKC learned the hard way – the ONLY way – what it takes to win the championship. Can we look forward to more Finals between them? I Think so because they are clearly the class of their respective conferences.

    The woman with glasses on who interviewed the players – she seems to have a slight Howard Cosell complex – as in use big words like “ramifications” and take herself EXTREMELY seriously.

    The play-by-play announcers were poor – more times than I can count one of them would go off on a tear about something or other while on the court 2 or 3 plays were being run off.

    The whole production was WAY overdone, but that’s my problem. My philosophy is simple – just play the damn game, forget all the folderol, etc. But folderol is what pays the bills it seems, so there we are.

  10. 1historian - Jun 22, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    One more thing – I am not a Heat fan.

  11. thekingdave - Jun 22, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    @dgbk

    Carter wasn’t on that team

  12. shockexchange - Jun 22, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    To be considered “great,” a player needs a worthy adversary. Ali had Frazier, Magic had Bird, and now Durant has Lebron. Durant has been bested. Lebron used the “Lebron Rules” to improve his game. Let’s see if Durant gets stronger and work on his defense this summer.

  13. aberamsey - Jun 22, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    It’s a stretch to say Durant was “nearly as impressive” as Lebron. Other than his shooting percentage what was impressive? He can’t guard anyone, to the point that Mario Chalmers torched him in game 4. He has SEVEN assists in the final four games. In games 2-5 had had a total of 22 rebounds. He’s a great scorer/shooter but he really needs to work on making his teammates better.

  14. tomtravis76 - Jun 22, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    One thing proved to be important, is the role players. Miami will zero problem getting those vets with some left in the tank to come to Miami to chase a title with Lebron, Wade and Bosh. Iam not sure how long Chalmers has left, but he will bolt soon, he needs to get paid. You can bet Steve Nash is thinking about spending the next two seasons dishing it in Miami winning rings for league min. The Heat need a presence down low.

    OKC has a real nice squad, hopefully they learn from this and get better everywhere, because everyone else in the West is re-tooling to get their crack at Miami. The east is wrapped up for a few years, some teams will battle with Miami, but fans are about to get treated to a historical run of rings.

  15. tipstopten - Jun 22, 2012 at 10:16 AM

    When the Refs play favorites most anyone can score a triple double. Traveling, palming the ball, shoving off, holding
    you name it an Lebron gets away with it. I think I may have watched my last NBA game. Just to much football on the
    basketball court. Naismith is going to get his revenge somehow and someway.

    Jim

    • barkley4life - Jun 22, 2012 at 12:30 PM

      Spoken like a moron who doesn’t know basketball or has an obvious agenda. Either way you’re an idiot.

  16. rodge1 - Jun 22, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    Thanks to all you haters for posting ignorant comments for the past 2 years on EVERY Heat article. You haters make this victory that much better. I look forward to your excuses and pathetic attempts to call Heat fans ‘bandwagon fans’, asterisks with the title, or any other lame reason to show how sad your lives really are. The fact that you haters have the freedom to hide behind your computers and post things that you would never say to a basketball player’s face, makes me proud to be an American. Hey haters, enjoy your freedom… Also, I hope you haters enjoy the next few months of Miami Heat Championship-related articles… Go Heat!!!!!

  17. klownboy - Jun 22, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    I am already looking forward to next season. Look for a Finals rematch in 2013…

  18. michflaguy - Jun 22, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    Hey Haters….%$#@ OFF!!!

    – Big Three (aka NBA Champs)

  19. michflaguy - Jun 22, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    Mike Miller…the coolest white guy on the planet today!

  20. canehouse - Jun 22, 2012 at 4:36 PM

    camnellum… the Thunder could also end up like the blazers of the early to mid 90’s.

    I have a question for the thunder fans… how long will the beard continue to hang on the office building? man u guys have to admit… ur in denial right? well it really did happen… u had no idea that miami was gonna wipe u guys out! LET’S GO HEAT… NBA CHAMPION 2012!!!!

  21. jimeejohnson - Jun 22, 2012 at 6:47 PM

    “Is it the end or beginning…I can’t figure out!”

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