Published June 12, 2012
| Sports Network
It's the three-time MVP vs. the three-time scoring champion as LeBron James and the Miami Heat square off with Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the NBA's ultimate prize, starting Tuesday in the Sooner State.
The 2012 NBA Finals marks the fifth time since 1967 that the league's scoring champ and MVP will meet with the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy on the line and the first time since Michael Jordan's Bulls knocked off MVP Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in 1997. Overall the scoring champion has won three out of four past matchups.
"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 on Monday. "One guy versus another guy, it's not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series, it's going to be all about the team."
James, coming off an iconic performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, was aided by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on Saturday as the Heat turned it on late to defeat the Celtics, 101-88, in Game 7 and earn a trip to The Finals for the second straight season.
The game was tied entering the fourth quarter, where James, Wade and Bosh combined to score all 28 of Miami's points.
James finished with a game-high 31 for the Heat, who lost to the Mavericks in last year's finals and are looking to secure their first NBA title since 2005-06.
They will visit the Thunder for Game 1 on Tuesday, looking again to silence their critics and prove they are capable of the big things expected of them when the James-Wade-Bosh threesome was put together.
"I don't think we need more motivation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Last year is behind us. This is a different journey. We went through the pain, we went through the evaluation, we went through the recommitment at the beginning of the year. We survived all these rounds.
"We have a very motivated group because of the opportunity and what we can accomplish collectively. You get to this point, you expect to play the best, and that's the way we view them, and I'm sure they view us the same way. We're looking forward to it."
Oklahoma City's route to The Finals may have been even more improbable than Miami's comeback against the C's. After all, the Thunder beat a team that hadn't lost in 50 days four times in one week.
Durant scored 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and Russell Westbrook added 25 points in Game 6 last Wednesday, as OKC rallied from an 18-point deficit to win the Western Conference title with a 107-99 victory over San Antonio.
The Spurs hadn't lost a game since April 11 before dropping Game 3 in the West finals against the Thunder. That loss not only halted the 20-game San Antonio run, it started a tidal wave the Spurs couldn't stop.
In fact, OKC sprinted through the West by sweeping last year's champ Dallas, taking the L.A. Lakers in five games and finishing off the Spurs in six, three teams that are responsible for 10 of the last 13 NBA titles.
"As sad and as disappointed as we are," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after losing to the Thunder, "it's like a Hollywood script for Oklahoma City."
This marks the Thunder's first NBA Finals berth since they were based in Seattle as the then-SuperSonics in 1996.
"We've been through so much, the Mavericks, and then playing the Lakers and playing the best offensive team in basketball in the Spurs," Sixth Man of the Year James Harden said. "I think we've prepared ourselves to be in this situation and to play well. We're ready."
Miami and OKC split a pair of regular season meetings with Oklahoma City forcing 21 turnovers and rolling to a 103-87 victory at home on March 25 before the Heat rallied for a 98-93 win in Miami on April 4.
The 23-year-old Durant, who is in The Finals for the first time, averaged 29 points in those games but turned it over a career-high nine times while scoring 30 in the second contest. James, who is about to make his third finals appearance, had 34 points in South Florida, doubling up his output from the OKC game. Each is expected to defend the other at times in The Finals.
"Kevin's job is to play whoever we have him guard," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "He's not one to hide. He knows that he has to be a good defender for us to win. He's determined to be a special player in this league, and you have to be a two-way player, just like LeBron. LeBron is a fantastic defender."
Durant and James are friends and workout partners in the offseason but that will take a backseat as each attempts to stamp his legacy.
Durant is intent on winning his first NBA title and taking James' crown as the best basketball player on the planet, while James, who lost in The Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers to San Antonio in 2007 as well as last season, wants to hush his critics who say he is a shrinking violet in big moments.
"Obviously, LeBron wants to win a championship," Wade said. "I can't say that he wants to win more than the next man, than anybody on OKC. I can't say that. But obviously he wants to win and get another opportunity. I'm sure he will try to seize it a little bit better than he did the first two times."
These two franchises have never met in the postseason before and each have one NBA championship on their resume. The Heat topped the Mavs in six games back in 2006 while the Thunder won a title in 1979 as the Sonics, besting the Washington Bullets in five.
"It's great for the NBA," Miami's Shane Battier said of the dream matchup. "I anticipate record ratings. 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."
Game 2 of the series is set for Thursday in OKC.