OKLAHOMA CITY - In the middle of the NBA lockout, with the prospect of a canceled season very real, Miami Heat star LeBron James and Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant gave basketball-craving fans what they wanted.
In a packed gym Aug. 30 in Baltimore that was part old-fashioned barnstorming, part necessary workout and part Nike promotion, James and Durant lived up to the billing.
James and Durant went one-on-one, possession after possession during one crowd-pleasing stretch. Durant dazzled with crossovers and step-back jumpers. James made jumpers with Durant in his face and dunked with ferocity.
"That was a fun game, and it's something I'm always going to remember," said Durant, who did not miss an opportunity to show up for the players' pickup games during the lockout. "That summer is something I'm always going to remember."
It was a show, but just that, for show. Even then, the idea danced in James' mind. "I envisioned us getting to this point," he said then of meeting in the Finals.
So did many others.
The real business begins Tuesday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a matchup featuring the two best players going for a first NBA ring.
"It's going to bring the best out of both of them, and it's going to be the best for the game, and it's going to be a great show and it's going to be a good matchup," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
James vs. Durant does not overshadow Miami vs.Oklahoma City. It only highlights it, invoking indelible memories of Magic vs. Bird.
"That's good basketball, to see Kevin and LeBron go at each other," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "There's always a game within the game."
James first met Durant when Durant was in high school and has kept in contact since. He knew Durant had a chance to be special and wanted to make sure he had another player to call if necessary.
"I understood the situation he was getting himself into, being drafted as high as he was, and the things that came with being drafted to a team that needed a marquee player or a superstar," James said. "I always lent my hand out to guide him if he needed it, to help him, to mentor him if he needed it through anything, and that's on and off the floor.
"Our relationship is really good. Our relationship is going to continue to grow, and I'm happy to be in this position where I can compete against him."
A chance for redemption
They are the best players in the league. James won his third MVP this season, and Durant finished second in the voting for the second time. The next player not named LeBron James to win MVP likely will be named Kevin Durant, who won his third consecutive NBA scoring title.
For James, 27, this is a chance at redemption after his substandard Finals a year ago against the Dallas Mavericks, when his ability to finish games was doubted.
"I didn't play well," he said. "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."
James has been more introspective this season than at any other time in his career. He did not like who he became last year with so many fans rooting against him and the Heat.
"I just feel more at ease now," he said. "And like I said, I played too much to prove people wrong last year instead of just playing my game and doing what needs to be done.
"At the end of the day in this series, I'm going to play my game, try to do whatever it takes on both ends to make plays and help us win. And at the end of the day, whatever the results happen, I'm going to be satisfied with that."
Durant, 23, is in his first Finals but downplayed the importance of Finals experience.
"Of course, everybody is going to say it's not our time, we're too young, it's going to happen eventually, but that's not the approach we ever want to take with anything," Durant said. "My mom (Wanda Pratt) always told me when I was going against older guys, 'Don't let your age be the reason why you don't succeed.' "
The Thunder have been headed for this moment since their 23-59 season in 2008-09. As Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden developed, this day seemed inevitable.
In 2010, the Thunder lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. And last season, they lost to the Mavericks in Durant's first conference finals. In this season's playoffs, Oklahoma City has beaten the Mavericks, Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, the only teams to represent the West in the Finals since 1999, until now.
"I just wanted to get better. I knew as a team if we were going to continue to grow, I had to get better," Durant said. "I just kept working out in the summer as hard as I could, and hopefully the day will come that I get an opportunity to bring home a championship."
Hot at the right time
It can only be one of them.
Both enter the Finals playing tremendously well. Durant is averaging 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists, with six games of 30 points or more. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists. James (2009) and Oscar Robertson (1963) are the only NBA players to average at least 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists in the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
"He can score at will, he's strong, he can shoot it. But it's got to be a team effort," Durant said. "I've got to play my hardest every possession; no possessions off. He's really good in transition, when you turn the ball over. Or for rebounds, he is really good at getting to the rim."
James has been special in the last two series and had six games of 30 or more points vs. the Boston Celtics, including 45 and 31 in the final two.
"It's phenomenal what he does, and we're going to need him to continue to do that for all of us to reach our final goal," Wade said.
Brooks and Durant tried to downplay the individual matchup.
"My memory always tells me, the Celtics teams were great because of the team. The Laker teams were great because of the team," Brooks said. "Obviously, Magic and all the great players, Bird, all the great players ... their teams were always impressive because they always battled each other or for each other."
Durant deflected specific questions about the one-on-one matchup. "Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup of me vs. LeBron, but it's the Thunder vs. the Heat. ... It's not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series. It's going to be all about the team."
James knows that, but he relishes the challenge. "I'm looking forward to going against him."
In November, with the lockout dragging, James invited Durant to Akron, Ohio, for workout sessions. For four days they lifted weights, went through agility and conditioning drills and took shots in the gym.
"To come out there and have a chance to work out with one of the top players, it's something you've got to take advantage of," Durant said. "I always want to get better no matter what, and that's what we did."
The next time they work out together, likely at Team USA's camp before the 2012London Olympics, one will have a bigger smile - and the other will be working even harder for that first title.