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LeBron James-Kevin Durant dream matchup can’t compare to this ‘Dream Team’

As Michael Jordan said 'Dream Team' there will never be another team like it.

As Michael Jordan said in "Dream Team,' there will never be another team like it.

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Updated: June 14, 2012 4:55PM

Sports Illustrated heralds the NBA’s ‘‘New Era’’ in its cover story this week on the LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant matchup in the NBA Finals. And there’s no doubt the Heat-Thunder series is the ultimate showcase for the 21st-century NBA and the ultra-athletes who have taken the league to new heights of entertainment and popularity and new depths of post-game fashion.

It’s more popular and entertaining than ever. But is it better? Is LeBron vs. Durant better than Magic vs. Bird or Jordan vs. Magic? Is the Heat vs. Thunder better than the Celtics vs. Lakers? We’re having more fun, but are we watching better basketball? And does that even matter anymore?

The premiere of ‘‘The Dream Team’‘ — NBA TV’s well-done documentary on the historic 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team — as the LeBron-Durant NBA Finals opened doesn’t answer that question, but it sure provides a specific relief to illustrate just how different the game is today.

‘‘The Dream Team’’ cuts right to the core of what made that era so special and what differentiates it from today’s game — a mix of unrestrained ego and over-the-top competitiveness that was not always becoming but made the superstars of that era bitter rivals even when they were teammates.

Before they got down to the business of representing their country in the Olympic Games, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson went to war in practices to settle the issue of which was King of the Hill in the NBA. Jordan guarded Magic and Magic guarded Jordan not because of the matchups, but because they wouldn’t have it any other way. They were rivals long before they were friends.

It’s almost the other way around today — these guys are more like teammates even when they’re on opposite sides. To NBA fans this series will determine whether James or Durant is the King of the Hill. But no to LeBron. ‘‘I don’t really care,’‘ he said prior to Game 1. ‘‘I don’t really get involved in the best player in the game. It doesn’t matter to me.’’

In Game 1 on Tuesday night, Durant guarded James for much of the first three quarters, when James scored 23 of his 30 points. James is celebrated for being able to guard any position on the court — his defense against Derrick Rose made the difference in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. But in Game 1 he started on Kendrick Perkins, which seemed like a waste of one of the league’s great defensive players, even if he switched onto Durant or other more potent offensive threats in their half-court defense. (LeBron did help hold Perkins to four points — nearly a full point below his playoff average of 4.7 per game.)

James is trying to win a ring not an individual trophy. But his dismissive response to a question about guarding Durant seemed very ... new era-ish, for lack of a better term.

‘‘I mean, it’s whatever, honestly,’’ James said. ‘‘I will do whatever it takes for our team to win. If I need to start on him, I will. Coach [Erik Spoelstra] gave us an idea for Game 1 and we went with it.’’

That’s the ‘‘new era’’ in a nutshell. And there’s nothing wrong with it. The NBA game is very healthy with athleticism trumping ‘‘Showtime’’ basketball. That the Heat came into this Finals with assists on fewer than 50 percent of their baskets in the playoffs (and the Thunder at 50.1) when the Lakers and Celtics of the Magic/Bird era were routinely between 60-65 percent might rankle some old-timers a bit.

But let’s not forget that those of us celebrating the glory of a bygone era are not hearkening back to the days of set shots and canvas shoes. This is not nostalgia. Unlike most ‘‘good-old days,’’ the Magic-Bird-Jordan era was every bit as good as we remember. Magic Johnson jumped center, guarded Dr. J, played every position on the floor and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a Game 6 clincher of an NBA Finals on the road — 32 years ago. By the end of MIchael Jordan’s ninth year in the NBA he had won not only seven scoring titles and three MVP awards, but three NBA championships. Larry Bird played just 25 games in the NBA before turning 23 (LeBron and Durant played four seasons) — the Celtics went 19-6 in those games. They were 6-19 in the 25 games before Bird arrived.

As Jordan said in ‘‘The Dream Team,’’ there will never be another team like it. The players are better. But those days are gone forever.

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