Kevin Durant knows that whatever happens in the NBA Finals, he and LeBron James will be viewed as being at the center of it, for better or for worse. He recognizes that, he understands that, but he doesn’t have to like that.
Durant and James have more in common than chasing a championship starting Tuesday in Oklahoma City. Both have become hermits during the playoffs, with James spurning TV for a good book and Durant taking a break from his well-followed Twitter account since May 1. Still, living under a rock has not kept Durant from being well aware that the dominant storyline of the Finals is the individual matchup between this season’s top candidates for the Most Valuable Player award.
“I mean, that’s the sexy matchup, I guess,” Durant told reporters at practice Monday. “But I don’t get on Twitter anymore. I just focus on what I need to do and what we need to do as a team. To be honest, really, outside of me knowing what you guys are thinking, that’s all I’ve heard about the matchup, is from you guys.”
Durant has been billed as the anti-LeBron ever since he re-signed with the Thunder to little fanfare on July 7, 2010, the day before “The Decision” aired on ESPN. James claimed the MVP trophy this season, but there is little question that the Thunder have the deeper team with All-Star Russell Westbrook, Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, league blocks leader Serge Ibaka and championship veterans Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Oklahoma City’s complementary roster is too strong to draw any serious comparisons with a Miami supporting cast that begins with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and falls off dramatically from there.
The individual star matchup is not as clear-cut, however. It also has the added juice of Durant and James working out together in James’ native Akron, Ohio, last offseason on James’ invitation. The two participated in numerous charitable showcases together during the lockout, and James has said he envisioned the Heat and Thunder meeting up in the playoffs. Durant harbored no such grand expectations.
“Nope, uh-uh,” Durant said. “Of course, they had one of the best teams in the league, so it was easy for people to say we [were] going to meet in the Finals, but I was always taking it a day at a time and whatever happens, happens. Everybody is going to make the most out of Me versus LeBron, but it’s the Thunder versus the Heat. It’s not going to be one guy versus another guy to win the series. It’s going to be all about the team. It’s going to be fun.”
The first part of that quote — about never expecting the Thunder to be in the Finals — could be the definitive difference between Durant and James, because James did expect this. He expected to win a championship last year as well as this year, then the next four or so, and maybe take a shot at the Celtics’ record of eight straight. We know this because he said so in that laser-light show of an introduction almost two full years ago.
That may make James the villain in many people’s eyes, but there is nothing wrong with confidence. Bill Russell expected himself to grab every rebound and win every championship, and usually he was correct. Durant is humble, which makes him different from James but not necessarily better. Heck, if the Heat win the title, some of the same naysayers who now criticize James’ arrogance may change targets and claim Durant is too nice to ever win a championship. Human nature is so predictable.
In the public imagination, this series will come down to the triumph of one man and the failure of another. Durant recognizes that the storyline will not necessarily fit reality, but he is shrewd enough to know that the reality will not matter.