OKLAHOMA CITY -- So often these things are contrived. LeBron James never had a rivalry with Kobe Bryant, any more than Bryant was a rival to Michael Jordan. When James was a rookie he was supposed to be a rival of Carmelo Anthony's because they were the young stars of the 2003 draft, but the two of them have yet to compete against each other for much of anything.
What is about to happen over the next two weeks is for real. James and Kevin Durant are arguably the NBA's two best players. They finished Nos. 1 and 2 in the MVP vote this season, and their games oppose and complement each other like yin and yang. Whether you prefer Durant or LeBron depends as much on your own tastes as on the evidence because, until now, there has been so little evidence head to head.
But now this NBA Finals is going to decide which player is best, and the importance of styles or preferences is going to recede. The best player in the NBA is going to be the star who leads his team to the championship, and it's either going to be James or Durant, and afterward there probably isn't going to be a lot of room for argument. After the last couple of years, that has to be the criteria that James has been seeking.
"Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup, or me versus LeBron,'' Durant said on the eve of Oklahoma City's opening game in the NBA Finals against James' Miami Heat on Tuesday night. "But it's the Thunder versus the Heat. One guy versus another guy, it's not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series. It's going to be all about the team. It's going to be fun.''
They each need to make it fun, but if this series turns out to be as tight as it should be then there will be times that won't be fun at all. That's why James had earned an advantage before the games had begun. It isn't that his experiences of the last two years give him some kind of mystical advantage that enables him to predict what is going to happen. What he has learned is that he doesn't know what is going to happen. He has learned to embrace the uncertainty. He has developed the skills to react to bad times, to adapt to them and overcome them.
It's like the boxer who knows what to do after he's been knocked out on his feet. Will he survive the next half-minute, or is he going down? Last year James went down. His Heat were about to take a 2-0 lead in the Finals when they panicked from the perimeter instead of pounding the ball inside. The Mavericks later forced a 2-2 tie after Miami had outplayed them for most of the series. James, who had played like a more athletic Larry Bird in the fourth quarters of the previous rounds against Boston and Chicago, was ridiculed as a choker who vanished under pressure.
"I didn't play well," James said Monday of last year's Finals. "I think I said that 100 times this year. I didn't play well. I didn't make enough game-changing plays that I know I'm capable of making, and I felt like I let my teammates down."
The reason James is back in the Finals is because he is making plays he didn't or couldn't make a year ago. He slimmed down while toughening his game. He taught himself to post up more, which was something he never wanted to do. Growing up means learning that you don't have the right to choose, that you do what is necessary. Growing up is something you do when you have no other choice. It's forced upon you because you can't stand to make the same mistakes again.
"There's been sacrifices that have been made throughout this whole season,'' James said. "I had to get out of a lot of my comfort zone, a lot of things that I was comfortable with -- I had to change some things both on and off the floor. But it's always great when you put your mind to something, you strive to do something, and then it rewards you.''
James and his teammates were talking a lot on Monday about being comfortable for this champhionips series, and they meant it in a way they might not have understood before they lost the Finals last year. They are comfortable with the understanding that something bad is going to happen to them. They are comfortable because they know they can overcome it.
"I really like this setting,'' Heat forward Chris Bosh said as he looked around the empty arena that promised to be louder than any building in the NBA on Tuesday night. "Our team is built for this. We're not in our comfort zone, and that's where we need to be.''
Understand? Being uncomfortable makes them comfortable.
It's a sense of comfort and confidence that has to be earned. Has Durant earned it already? His Thunder reached the Finals by defeating the defending champion Mavericks, the five-time champion Lakers of Kobe Bryant and the four-time champion Spurs of Tim Duncan, so maybe he is ready to deal with whatever comes next. Last year he and his team won a Game 7 at home against the Grizzlies to reach the conference finals, and last month they were down 0-2 in the conference finals to the Spurs before winning the next four, including three at home.
But he has never survived the bad times that (for now) define James as a winner. Durant has never blown a 2-0 lead in a conference finals while losing a Game 5 at home. That was a humiliating loss for James last week. It should have frightened him, and a year ago it would have done him in. Lose Game 6 in Boston, as expected, and he would have been vilified all over again. Instead, he responded with 45 points (including a 12-of-13 start from the field) to put himself and his team into this arena, which is not going to intimidate them in the least.
"We've just got to be ready to face a really good team, a well-coached team,'' Durant said. "They play hard like us, athletic. We know we have a really good opportunity, and we've got to go take it. We've got to try to take it. Like I said, it's not going to be easy, and that's the fun part about it."
Durant and James are friends who worked out together in Akron, Ohio, for four days before this season. But it's their differences that make this Finals so intriguing. At heart, James is a passer and Durant is a finisher, though they've each worked hard in hopes of resembling one another. James is a more focused scorer. Durant has improved his all-around game.
Now it's up to James to explore the real difference between them. He must try to make the games uncomfortable. James' team will attempt to knock Durant's team back on its heels, and the Thunder will be looking to do the same to the Heat. Something unexpected is going to happen in this series. It has the makings of an entirely unpredictable environment, and that's exactly the kind of gym in which LeBron James has learned to thrive.