Hayden Donnell previews the NBA finals where two of the sport's biggest names stake their claims in NBA history.
The best NBA Finals are always remembered for their place in the grand basketball narrative. Last year, Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki was trying to prove he was not another Karl Malone - a spectacularly talented forward who put up incredible statistics and is mostly remembered for choking under pressure.
In the early 2000s, it was Hall of Fame scorer/ball hog Kobe Bryant establishing a Lakers dynasty despite a festering and ultimately unsustainable feud with his superstar teammate Shaquille O'Neal. Then when he constructed another dynasty years later, it was meant to be about showing up Shaq.
In the 2012 finals starting tomorrow, the narrative centres around two star small forwards: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. They have dominated the 2012 playoffs, ranking one and two in points scored, two and three in rebounds pulled down and one and two in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), an overall measure of a player's effectiveness. The two best players in the game will be going head to head in a finals series with their legacies on the line. In the eyes of many people, the narrative of the series is the oldest one around: Good versus evil.
As background, James - then a basketball phenom straight of high school in Akron - came to the NBA in 2003 and through draft lottery luck landed with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. After seven titleless and often frustrating years carrying the team, he went on national TV in a checked shirt and told the world he was taking his "talents to South Beach" to team up with stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. The moment instantly transformed him from fan favourite to the living embodiment of sports star entitlement and spawned reaction photos like this one of Cleveland's "Lebron James Grandmother's Fan Club".
Two days earlier, Durant had sent out a tweet announcing he was signing with the small market Oklahoma City Thunder for another five years. It read: "Exstension for 5 more years wit the *#thunder ,....God Is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!"
From then on, the two of them have been framed together in a kind of morality play. James, who betrayed his home state to team up with superstars versus Durant, who stayed with his team while it built a foundation around him. The reality is more complicated. The pair are good friends rather than rivals, spending last off season training together. They are both said to be good, family centred men who famously love their Mums. And even though James' failures to perform in high stakes games means his move to Miami is often written off as a cry for help, they are both responsible for carrying their teams on their backs at pivotal moments.
Take last week's Eastern Conference Finals. Facing elimination at the hands of his long-time nemesis Boston Celtics team, James played one of the most ruthlessly efficient games in playoff history. Wearing a glassy eyed, detached expression through all 48 minutes of game time, he singlehandedly halted the last winning run of an aging Celtics team with a dispiritingly dominant 44 point, 15 rebound display on 19 of 26 shooting. The Heat eliminated the Celtics the next game and James averaged 33 points and 11 rebounds for the series.
In the dying moments of game four of the Western Conference semi-final between the Thunder and the former champion Lakers, Durant stood casually dribbling the ball from hand to hand. With seconds left in the game, the scores tied at 98, and a chance to post an almost unassailable series lead, he jumped to shoot over the outstretched arms of Metta World Peace (the specialist defender formerly known as Ron Artest). It was an ill-advised shot, the kind most basketball analysts would call low percentage, and it never looked like missing.
There have been other story lines these playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs playing beautiful basketball and still losing to the Thunder - losing their shot at a fifth title for the best power forward of all time, Tim Duncan. The Lakers continuing their decline, with Bryant placing the blame for the team's second round loss on his teammates while ignoring his own poor decisions and shooting statistics. The Celtics falling short in what is likely the last playoffs their 'Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce will face together. And Nowitzki's Mavericks putting together one of the most limp title defences in history on their way to getting swept out of the first round.
But now it comes down to the Finals and a battle between Miami, a franchise whose players are often criticised for taking the shortcut route to becoming title contenders, and Oklahoma, the young team built the "right way" through stocking high draft picks and making smart signings. It is pitting the Heat's big three of James, Wade and Chris Bosh against the Thunder's star trio Russell Westbrook, Durant and James Harden. Still, when the sports writers of the future look back, this series is most likely to be remembered either as the time James took his place as one of the greatest players ever, or when Durant cemented his spot in NBA history with the first title of a Thunder dynasty.
My pick: Thunder in 7.
Western Conference First Round
LA Lakers over Denver, 4-3
Oklahoma Thunder over Dallas 4-0
San Antonio over Utah, 4-0
LA Clippers over Memphis, 4-3
Western Conference Semifinals
Oklahoma City over LA Lakers, 4-1
San Antonio over LA Clippers, 4-0
Western Conference Finals
Oklahoma City over San Antonio, 4-2
Eastern Conference First Round
Philadelphia over Chicago, 4-2
Boston over Atlanta, 4-2
Indiana over Orlando, 4-1
Miami over New York, 4-1
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston over Philadelphia, 4-3
Miami over Indiana, 4-2
Eastern Conference Finals
Miami over Boston, 4-3
Hayden Donnell will provide live updates of the NBA finals for nzherald.co.nz starting with Game 1 tomorrow.