Just before LeBron James sat in that director's chair, with his checkered shirt and his impassive gaze, and made the declaration that torpedoed...

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MIAMI — Just before LeBron James sat in that director’s chair, with his checkered shirt and his impassive gaze, and made the declaration that torpedoed his Q rating, another young NBA superstar quietly tapped out his own intentions on a keyboard.

“Extension for 5 more years with the Thunder,” Kevin Durant wrote on his Twitter account on July 7, 2010.

He called it a blessing.

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The next night, James commandeered a national television network to announce he would “take my talents to South Beach.”

The contrast was vivid and irresistible, a gift to the growing LeBron James demonization industry and fodder for screaming pundits everywhere. At that moment, James embodied all the worst traits of the modern athlete: detachment, self-absorption, egomania. Durant represented virtue, humility, subtlety.

It was a cheap, easy narrative that had some basis in reality but was too eagerly stretched into an overwrought morality play: Durant vs. James, for the soul of the game.

They were not truly rivals then — in morality or basketball — but the comparisons today are now unavoidable, and so much more relevant and compelling. Durant and James will meet in the NBA Finals Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, in a dream matchup.

They are arguably the two most dynamic and versatile players in the league — scorers who love to pass, forwards who play like guards, each thoroughly committed to defense and teamwork and all of basketball’s best virtues.

Durant has won three straight scoring titles, narrowly beating James in two of the three years. James has won three of the last four Most Valuable Player trophies, beating Durant for the award this year.

Rivals by necessity, the two share a friendship and a mutual respect that contradicts all of the caricatures. In the dark, drab days of the lockout last summer, James invited Durant to join him for workouts in Akron, Ohio, his hometown. They spent four days together, training twice a day, sprinting, stretching and sweating in a regimen they dubbed Hell Week.

That they are, all these months later, about to meet for the championship is no surprise to either of them.

“I envisioned it every day we worked out,” James said. “I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was. We pushed each other every single day.”

Between muscle burns, the two bonded over a common source of anguish.

“He was a little upset about the series in Dallas, where they got eliminated by Dallas,” James said, “and I was as well. So we pushed each other each and every day.”

The Mavericks had eliminated the Thunder in five games in the Western Conference finals last spring before taking out the Heat in six games for the title. So here were Dirk Nowitzki’s two final victims, plotting their vengeance together while league and union negotiators argued over repeater taxes.

The Thunder swept the Mavericks to start this playoff run, then plowed through another old tormentor, the Los Angeles Lakers, in five games before taking out one of the West’s most storied teams, the San Antonio Spurs, in the conference finals.

James earned his chance at redemption by vanquishing the Boston Celtics, the team that had denied him so many times during his Cleveland Cavaliers tenure and, it can be argued, forced his move to South Beach.

NBA Finals
Best-of-seven series between Thunder and Heat (all games on Ch. 4)
When Where Time
Tuesday Oklahoma City 6 p.m.
Thursday Oklahoma City 6 p.m.
Sunday Miami 5 p.m.
June 19 Miami 6 p.m.
x-June 21 Miami 6 p.m.
x-June 24 Oklahoma City 5 p.m.
x-June 26 Oklahoma City 6 p.m.
x-if necessary
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