The burgeoning rivalry between LeBron James and Kevin Durant isn’t tinted with disdain or paranoia or AAU history. In so many notable clashes, Bird-Magic especially, their collegiate pasts and large market locales played major roles in a media-driven conflict. But these two, the unquestioned titans of the NBA in 2012, their hardwood war is rooted in the future.
As James and the Miami Heat finished off the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, they buried an aging green army with a blue storm rising on the Finals horizon. The Oklahoma City Thunder dispatched San Antonio ruthlessly, in six games, once they’d found their legs. And can those young legs run.
Sans a healthy Chris Bosh, the Heat don’t last five games with Oklahoma City. But the former Toronto Raptor exploded in tonight’s pivotal matchup, posting 19 points and 8 rebounds and along with the curiously appearing and disappearing Dwyane Wade (23-6-6), Miami didn’t require a legendary performance from James. He still managed 31 points and 12 rebounds, ho-hum numbers from a superstar who has the tendency to make the immeasurable look ordinary.
But most significant, James is headed back to the precipice of a championship and the only opportunity he’s yet to cash in on in his Hall of Fame career. To do that, he’ll need to best a rival that’s not really much of one yet.
It’s not in James’ makeup to embrace any sort of villainy. He did so when he chose the Heat but his obsession with image and being liked fails to encapsulate the evil so many will cast him in during his battle with Durant. The small market hero, who decided to stick with Oklahoma City and continue working on his extravagant skill set in relative anonymity embodies the role model traits easy to love in a protagonist. He’s humble, he hugs his mother, he signs extensions in Oklahoma the moment they’re offered and he never hosted a television show where “talents” and “South Beach” were forever tainted in our lexicon.
Where their future and this rivalry intersect begins Tuesday. Should Oklahoma City prevail and Kevin Durant ascend to the league’s throne, questions about his on-court relationship with Russell Westbrook become moot. Maybe James Harden sticks around for less money and the Thunder find a way to replace Serge Ibaka.
Should Miami grab the first of the several titles they claimed in their signing celebration, the LeBron narrative shifts from what he can’t do to what he will do. There’s a dynasty at stake in these Finals, a chance for one of the Thunder or Heat to wrap their collective hands around the league’s throat and pick up where the Lakers and Spurs left off.
No one can blame veteran players for flocking to salary minimums in Miami, not with rings so close. And no one can blame the country outside of South Beach for siding with the Thunder. Where classic rivalries always had a climax, a defining event in which it became more than hypothetical, LeBron James and Kevin Durant await theirs. If it’s as spectacular as we all hope, the future of the NBA hangs in the balance.