MIAMI – Several weeks before this season even started, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were competing against each other.
Hell Week, they called it, a four-day series of grueling workouts.
Starting Tuesday, they'll meet again. They'll call that the NBA finals.
Neither was playing at the level they are now when James invited Durant to work out with him during the NBA lockout in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Now as James tries to win his first ring, fittingly, it's Durant in his way.
"It's only right. It's only right," James said. "We look forward to the challenge. It's going to be a big test for us."
James played at a rarely seen level in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. According to STATS LLC, James became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in the 2000 finals to have six 30-point games in a playoff series. In the one contest where James didn't score 30, he finished with 29 in Game 4, fouling out in overtime.
His series averages against the Celtics: 33.6 points and 11 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting. He had five games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in the entire regular season — then did it five times in the series against Boston alone.
"He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He's playing at an historic level during the playoffs, driving us with his will. We do not take his talent or his will or his competitiveness for granted. And we need every single bit of it. He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he's pushing the rest of the team as well."
Said Heat guard Dwyane Wade: "He's amazing."
There were many moments for the Heat to celebrate on Saturday night, when they punched their ticket back to the NBA finals by ousting Boston 101-88 in Game 7.
Heat owner Micky Arison couldn't have gotten his hands off the East trophy fast enough, since that isn't the one he wants anyway. James felt the same way. The Heat star left the floor in a cap and T-shirt, one arm raised in joy.
Behind him, the celebration continued. By then, he was already thinking about what's next.
"I really thought he in particular played a very smart, aggressive game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He kind of let the game come to him, and then down the stretch he took the game over. That's what great players do."
They don't do it alone, though.
Criticized last season for deferring too often in crucial situations, James went into the offseason driven by the pain of failing in the NBA finals. And even during the lockout, he did anything he could to improve — two-a-day workouts, studying with Hakeem Olajuwon, yoga, boxing, beach sprints, even asking Durant to come to Akron for a few days for some training.
In those sessions, they pushed each other to the limit.
"Me and KD, man, just tryin' to get better," James said in a video of one workout posted online.
And look at them now, two superstars set to fight for one ring.
"I envisioned it every day we worked out," James said. "I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was."
They both understood the other perfectly.
James and the Heat lost to Dallas in last season's finals. Durant and the Thunder lost to Dallas in last season's Western Conference finals. This probably couldn't have been scripted any better. Maybe the two best players in the world, scarred by similar disappointment, trying to make the other better.
And when the final series of the season begins Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, they'll each have a close-up view of how far the other has come.
"It's going to be a battle," Durant said.
The Heat and Thunder split two games during the regular season, both winning at home. Durant scored the most points in the NBA this season at 1,850, James was second with 1,683. James won the MVP award, Durant finished second in that balloting. And in these finals, one will finish first again, the other will finish second again.
"It's not about Kevin and LeBron," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's not about any other thing other than playing good basketball against a very good team. ... Individually, they're the best players in the league.
"They have many ways that they score and many ways that they help their team win. They make winning basketball plays, they're both defensively very good, they both get rebounds, they both pass. But it's always about the Thunder against the Heat."
There's probably little argument that James and Durant have been the premier players in this postseason. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while Durant is at 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists. But while Durant is celebrated for what he's doing as a 23-year-old on the rise in a small market, James gets the constant reminder of how he's a 27-year-old without a championship despite moving to Miami.
"LeBron James, I just have a feeling a lot of people are just waiting to pin failure on him versus objectively evaluating his game," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said during the East finals. "I mean, think about it. ... James has an every-night pressure that no one else has. I don't understand what people don't like about him."
It seems no matter what James does or how well he plays, some can't get past The Decision — that infamous televised special where he announced he was signing with Miami in 2010. If he passes, he should have shot. If he shoots, he is being selfish. If he puts up 45 points and 15 rebounds, like in Game 6 of the East finals, some ask why he doesn't do that every night. If the Heat win, the reminders come that they didn't win it all last season.
Those around James say the scrutiny drives him.
James, for his part, says he does his best to ignore it all.
"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person,", James said. "I can't get involved in that. People can have their own opinions, and rightfully so. They can have their own opinions. For me I just go out and play at a high level, and do whatever it takes for us to win. And I can be happy with that."
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed.
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