Before they blossomed into the two best players preparing to do battle on the game's biggest stage, Kevin Durant and LeBron James were just buds with a basketball bond, a relationship that always has been heavily skewed more toward friendly than rivalry.
It dates to Durant's high-school days, when he was a top-ranked prospect navigating his way from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., to a basketball scholarship at Texas and on to the NBA as the eventual No. 2 selection in the 2007 NBA Draft.
“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 superstar,” James said Monday. “From day one, 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.”
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Legacies are now on the line.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, the 2012 NBA Finals are all about them. When this series is added to the history books, their colossal clash will make the matchup between Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder and James' Miami Heat a footnote.
To many, this series will decide which player should wear the crown as the best player on the planet. By June 26 — at the very latest and if we're lucky enough to see this series go seven games — we will know if the feathery game of Durant won out, or if the forceful skill of James finally triumphed.
James insisted that he “doesn't really care” for any of the accolades that are sure to stick to this year's champion.
“I don't really get involved in the best player in the game,” James said. “It doesn't matter to me, really. When I go out on the basketball court each and every night, I want to be the best player in the game. I want to be the best player on that floor, and that's just how I approach the game. So I don't really care what people say at the end of this series, if KD or LeBron is the best player in the league.
“It has to happen at some point anyway. I won't be the best player in the league. KD will be, and then KD won't be the best player in the league at some point. It happens all the time.”
Matchups as magnificent as this one don't often happen.
This is just the fifth time in NBA history that the reigning MVP met the reigning scoring champion in the NBA Finals. It's the first time since Michael Jordan and the Bulls took out Karl Malone and the Jazz in 1997.
Durant has three scoring titles. James has three MVP awards.
Neither has won his first ring.
“Individually, they're the best players in the league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They have many ways that they score and many ways that they help their teams win.”
Durant has spent the past few days downplaying the matchup.
“Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup, or me versus LeBron, but it's the Thunder versus the Heat,” Durant said. “It's not going to be a one-on-one matchup to win the series. It's going to be all about the team.”
Two breaths later, Durant then acknowledged his head-to-head battle with James is “a sexier matchup.”
“I think it's going to be a great matchup,” said Heat star guard Dwyane Wade. “I think it's going to be two players that's going to be tough to guard each other, that's going to have to guard each other. I look forward to seeing what my teammate is going to do against one of the best players.
“I'm glad he has that challenge because it's going to make him play a little different. I'd rather for him to be guarding Kevin Durant than to have to guard DeShawn Stevenson like last year, where he wasn't as involved; and also Shawn Marion, (where) he wasn't involved. Kevin Durant, you've got to have your antennas up at all times. I think 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.”