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James vs. Durant in the Finals something to savor

By SCOTT PATSKO • Jun 8, 2018 at 9:15 PM

CLEVELAND — The Miami Heat were making their second straight NBA Finals appearance in 2012 when they faced off against a young Oklahoma Thunder team led by Kevin Durant.

The fourth-year pro was the leader of a nucleus that also featured Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Durant led all scorers in the series (30.2 ppg), but the Thunder lost in five games.

LeBron James, the leader of that Heat team, figured he hadn't seen the last of Durant.

"I thought we'd have to face them for a while," James said on Wednesday. "Yeah, absolutely. Who wouldn't see that?"

It took five more years — and a couple free agency moves — for James to get two more Finals matchups with Durant. As Friday's Game 4 looms as a potential series climax for the Cavs and Warriors, Durant vs. James is worth savoring.

LeBron James on Cavs facing Warriors in Game 4

Matchups like this don't happen often. Not in the Finals. Not between the NBA's best two players at the same position. (Durant and James have been first-team All-NBA forwards together six times, including this season.)

The Finals almost never lack star power, but the best players on each team often have little to do with one another on the court. James vs. Durant is different. Through three games of the Finals, nobody has guarded Durant more than James. And nobody has guarded James more than Durant.

In Game 1, Durant guarded James on 45 possessions (James 24 on Durant). In Game 3, James guarded Durant on 42 possessions (Durant 29 on James). And in Game 2, they each guarded one another on more than 30 possessions.

Not that they've been able to slow each other down much. James is averaging 37.6 points, 9 rebounds and 10.6 assists in the Finals. Durant is averaging 31.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists.

They've been connected by some of the biggest moments of the last two Finals. It was Durant hitting a crucial 3-pointer over James late in last year's Game 3. James and Durant dueled in the fourth quarter of the decisive Game 5, scoring 14 and 11 points, respectively. Durant took home the MVP award. James became the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals.

James scored 30 of his 51 points against Durant in this year's Game 1. And it was James failing to draw a charge on Durant in one of Game 1's biggest moments.

They recognize each other's greatness.

"You watch his tendencies, movement. You watch just his actions on the basketball court, how he talks to his teammates. You just watch from afar and try to pick up some things, because he's a little older," said Durant. "So I think in that same way I looked at Kobe and Tim Duncan and those guys who are at that elite level who have experienced more, you just try to learn from them from watching from afar. I think LeBron has been a good model when it comes to that."

On Durant, James said: "There's nothing that Kevin Durant could show me at 23 that would make me like, 'Oh, years from now ...' no, Kevin Durant was great at 23. As you get older and older, your game gets more and more seasoned. But everyone knew that. That's Kevin Durant. So it's not like you would think that he would fizzle out. You knew he was built for greatness from the time that he was drafted. I mean, everybody knew that besides Portland, I guess. Sorry, Portland. Sorry."

The Trailblazers took Ohio State center Greg Oden first overall in the 2007 draft. Durant went second to Seattle. James didn't make the same mistake. While the picks weren't officially released, it's believed that James chose Durant first overall in this season's All-Star draft.

Kerr marvels at what James and Durant have been able to do this series, particularly in Games 1 and 3. "It really is shocking when you see the talent," he said.

They have at least one more game in this series to put it all on display.

"Just being able to play against somebody (like James) at the highest stage, the highest level, just brings out the best in both of us," said Durant. "It just makes the games better."

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