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Shaun Powell

The two top stars in the NBA have not disappointed thus far in the Finals, writes Shaun Powell.
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LeBron-Durant duel on course for historic run

Posted Jun 16 2012 6:55PM

MIAMI -- Two games do not make for an epic, but it does raise the chance Kevin Durant and LeBron James are in the early stages of assembling a spectacle worthy of the archives.

It's hard not to admire or appreciate the work currently being done by the MVP and the runner-up, how they've captivated the audience with brilliant stretches of basketball not unlike many duos before them in post-season settings.

These NBA Finals are tied one-all mainly because James and Durant, so far, are essentially tied. They've canceled each other out, which is actually a good thing from an entertainment perspective, because each is playing in a zone reachable only by the other.

They've averaged a combined 65 points a game and created many of the vivid snapshot moments in a series generating record TV ratings, at least in the post-Magic-Bird-Jordan era anyway. As we thought, Heat vs. Thunder has become must-watch, partly because two players generally regarded as the best in the game are leaving their mark and then some.

Do you doubt where this is going, where James and Durant are taking us? A special place, perhaps. Durant scored 17 points in the fourth quarter alone of Game 1, on a blizzard of three-pointers and slashes to the rim, rallying his team from 14 points down. The home fans gave him the MVP chant, and to a degree, he did outplay the winner of that trophy when it counted.

James followed up with a punishing display in Game 2, when he repeatedly took the ball to the rim, taking full advantage of his rare combination of size and speed for once and giving Miami the split they wanted in OKC.

Even better, James and Durant have guarded each other for long stretches, including the tense end of Game 2. That's when Durant took and missed the potential game-winning shot with scant seconds left, on a play where James clearly made contact but heard no whistle. And so, this matchup, already worth the buzz, had controversy, too.

Can they sustain this pace? Not only for the next three games in Miami, but in the near future as well? Because that's the only way they can put themselves in the conversation with the finest all-time clashes ever: Wilt-Russell, Magic-Bird, etc., etc. It's not totally out of the question, since the Thunder and Heat are built to contend, barring an injury or trade, and because James and Durant are in their prime.

Both are currently driven by the smell of a first championship, with more at stake perhaps for James, who's 0-for-2 in that quest and flamed out spectacularly last June against the Mavericks. That passion alone should guarantee more of what we've seen in the first two games.

"Obviously LeBron wants to win a championship," said Dwyane Wade. "I can't say he wants to win more than the next man, than anyone on OKC. But obviously he wants to get this opportunity and seize it better than he did the first two times."

Wade senses a different James and believes Durant is flushing out the finest in his teammate so far.

"I'm glad he has this challenge because it's making him focus more," said Wade. "I'd rather for him to guard Kevin than DeShawn Stevenson like last year, where he wasn't as involved. With Kevin, you have to have your antenna up at all times. It's bringing out the best in both of them."

There's also a challenge as well for Durant, who can't afford to relax on either end simply because the man in front of him won't allow it.

"I like what Kevin is about. He's a scoring champion who wants to be that two-way player," said OKC coach Scott Brooks. "We know LeBron is not easy to guard. That's something Kevin has taken upon himself to tackle."

Yes, in addition to winning a championship, both are bent on changing perceptions, and once again, James has more at stake. His approach this postseason seems sharper than a year ago, perhaps caused by the public whacks he took along the way. And also because of the way he came up empty against Dallas, when his flaws were exposed and laughed at. For example, James didn't attack the basket as relentlessly he's doing now. At one point, the Mavericks put J.J. Barea on James, the equivalent of a poodle on a timid pit bull, a strategy that seems unthinkable now. But that's how weak James' post-up game was, and how flimsy his confidence was a year ago, when he settled for jumpers and flamed out in the fourth quarters.

"For me it's all about aggression," he said. "I just try to get into the paint and make things happen, create for myself, create for others and put some pressure on their defense. That's what my game is built around. It's about being aggressive and taking what the defense gives me."

The NBA's popularity is built on classic matchups, but these matchups must happen in the postseason, or even better, the Finals, in order to grip an audience. The gold standard is and perhaps always will be Magic Johnson-Larry Bird in the '80s because those players helped rescue the league from the dark ages, when the Finals were once on tape delay. And those Finals were never short on drama and unforgettable moments.

A few other matchups followed: Michael Jordan-Charles Barkley, Jordan-Clyde Drexler, even Jordan-Magic. But those were mildly disappointing because Jordan's dominance removed all doubt and suspense fairly quickly.

James-Durant, though, is a coin toss so far. Nobody knows what the outcome might be, which of course will only keep the audience curious and coming back for more.

This doesn't dismiss the team concept or the chance that other players might ultimately hit bigger shots or make more important plays than James and Durant. Russell Westbrook is certainly capable, and Wade of course.

"When I watched the Finals growing up," said Durant, "it was always guys like Robert Horry hitting big shots, Derek Fisher hitting big shots. Guys came in off the bench and contributed and that's what I remember. I remember a team against a team. It's a team game and the best team is going to win."

Yes. Miami or OKC will own the trophy. The best way for that to happen is for James or Durant to put their team in position to win, as they're doing right now.

They haven't been perfect, far from it, actually. Durant was mostly absent in the lopsided first half of Game 2 when Miami broke away, and James misfired on shots in the fourth quarter of both games.

But as we see, they're working hard on making this as perfect a series as possible, for them, and certainly for us.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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