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LeBron James-Kevin Durant matchup could be an NBA classic

The Miami Heat's LeBrJames smiles during trophy presentatiafter Heat's 101-88 victory over BostCeltics Game 7 Eastern Conference finals Saturday. |

The Miami Heat's LeBron James smiles during the trophy presentation after the Heat's 101-88 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday. | Lynne Sladky~AP

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Updated: June 11, 2012 12:58PM



OKLAHOMA CITY — David Stern, you outdid yourself this time.

As the anti-LeBron James faction of NBA fandom bemoans the Celtics’ wasted opportunity to eliminate the most feared, reviled — and best — player in the game from the playoffs, everybody else is thanking the basketball gods for the most compelling NBA Finals matchup since Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Maybe even beyond that.

The dynamics of LeBron vs. Kevin Durant have created a must-see series that commissioner Stern couldn’t have concocted any better by decree. This is Patrick-Ewing-to-the-Knicks, LeBron-to-the-Cavaliers, Kevin-Garnett-and-Ray-Allen-to-the-Celtics and Derrick-Rose-to-the-Bulls wrapped up in one nice, season-saving package.

It doesn’t get any sweeter than this: the league MVP vs. the runner-up. The best players in the game, both still in their 20s, still in their prime and on championship-caliber teams. The player we love to love vs. the player we love to hate. Two of the top three scorers in the league (Durant, 28.0; James, 27.2) facing each other for the first time on the NBA’s biggest stage.

And the best part of it all, they play the same position. It remains to be seen how much LeBron guards Durant and Durant guards LeBron, but that’s the facet of this duel that could push it above the most memorable Finals matchups: Bird vs. Dr. J. Bird vs. Magic; Isiah vs. Magic; Michael vs. Magic; Michael vs. Malone; LeBron vs. Duncan; and last year’s classic: LeBron vs. LeBron. This could be the biggest thing since Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors faced Bill Russell and the Celtics for the first time in the NBA Finals in 1964.

This is the first time the MVP and runner-up have faced each other in the Finals since Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. Malone was the MVP in 1997 and Jordan in 1998, but it didn’t matter. By then it was clear who the best player in the game was. It was the same when Jordan faced MVP Charles Barkley in 1993 and runner-up Clyde Drexler in 1992 and runner-up Magic Johnson in 1991.

But with LeBron and Durant, the Best Player on the Planet Award is as much on the line as the NBA championship.

What a perfect way to end an inglorious season for the NBA. The stench of the lockout and a dubious, truncated regular season marked by injuries, wild fluctuations in quality and more injuries threatened to mar the postseason as well. Rose suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Bulls’ playoff opener, many of the first-round series were preseason quality and the Celtics-Sixers and Heat-Pacers series in the Eastern Conference semifinals produced more unpleasantness than scintillating basketball.

But two exciting conference finals series — the Spurs-Thunder and Heat-Celtics — reversed the momentum and produced the right winners. Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals might have outdrawn the Spurs and Celtics. Well, in Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey maybe.

And as hard as some might have been rooting against LeBron and the Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, shouldn’t they feel a little ashamed to be rooting for Rajon Rondo and Garnett after watching the two Celtics stars leave the court without shaking hands with the Heat players? Hard to believe that Garnett — still a favorite son in some parts of Chicago — can’t handle defeat any better at 36 than he did after losing to Thornton as an 18-year-old at Farragut in 1995.

LeBron had his own issues with post-series handshakes after the Cavaliers lost to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 — a lapse that earned him many of today’s ‘‘haters.’’ Regardless of how you feel about LeBron, just sit back and enjoy the show. It should be a great one.



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