They called it, in LeBron James’ words, “hell week.”
James was referring to four grueling but productive days last November in James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio, where he and Kevin Durant sharpened their immense skills and prepared meticulously for the rigors of an unforgiving, lockout-shortened NBA season.
So James said “it’s only right” that the two superstars and friends meet in the NBA Finals, which begin Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
“We pushed each other every single day,” James recalled early Sunday morning, after Miami’s Game 7 win against Boston. “I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was. He was a little upset when they got eliminated by Dallas, and I was as well.”
“I envisioned us getting to this point. I was happy for him that he’s able to get to the Finals. I’m looking forward to going against him.”
The James/Durant small forward duel should be one of the most compelling individual matchups in recent Finals history. James finished first in MVP voting this season, Durant second. Durant has won three consecutive scoring titles.
Best of the best
Both have been exceptional in the playoffs — James averaging an NBA-leading 30.8 points on 50.8 percent shooting along with 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists, and Durant 27.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.
“Individually, they’re the best players in the league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Sunday, with Durant declining to speak to reporters until Monday’s Finals media session.
During the four days in Akron, James and Durant were often side-by-side, in the weight room, on the court, on the football field and in the swimming pool, with the goal of working on improving their strength, speed, agility and overall conditioning.
“Man, we just got done lifting, putting in work in the weight room,” James said in YouTube videos of those workouts. “One hour, fifteen minutes of ball-handling, point guard drills. Me and K.D. just trying to get better, man. I’m exhausted.”
“Glad I came here,” Durant said.
“We’ll take him to Swenson’s!” LeBron cracked.
This should be a fascinating series, with five All-Stars (James, Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook) and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year (Oklahoma City’s James Harden).
The teams split two games — the Thunder winning 103-87 at home on March 25, and the Heat winning 98-93 at home on April 4. Durant averaged 29 points in the two meetings. James averaged 25.5 — 17 in the first game on a night he was battling health issues (including a jammed finger) but 34 points and 10 rebounds in the second.
“They’re a very, very, very talented team,” Bosh said. “They execute well, they play together well. But we do the same.”
The Thunder was third in the league in scoring at 103.1, but Miami was fourth in scoring defense (92.5). The Thunder led the league in turnovers; the Heat forced the third most. But “we’ve done a good job taking care of the ball during this playoff run,” Brooks said.
Beyond the James/Durant battle, there are other intriguing matchups:
• Power rotation: Because the Thunder has a big front line — with 6-9 Durant, 6-10 Serge Ibaka and 6-10 Kendrick Perkins, coach Erik Spoelstra might be inclined to move Chris Bosh back into the starting lineup alongside Udonis Haslem. That would allow Bosh to defend Ibaka and help counter the Thunder on the boards. Oklahoma City ranked sixth in rebounding this season; Miami was 21st.
James did not say who should start Tuesday but pointed out Bosh’s 19 points and eight rebounds off the bench in Game 7 were “huge. We haven’t had that type of activity, that firepower off the bench since we got here. It’s very unique that CB is coming off the bench, but it may be something great for us.”
Bosh, in the two games against the Thunder, averaged 15 points but shot 10 for 25 with 11 rebounds and eight turnovers. Ibaka, who led the NBA in blocked shots, averaged 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in the two games.
“Ibaka is shooting as well as any big man in the playoffs,” Haslem said. “You have to make him put the ball on the floor. Perkins is one of the best post defenders in the NBA. They play a little bigger than the Celtics. We have our work cut out for us.”
• Backcourt: After using Wade as the primary defender on Rajon Rondo the past two games, Spoelstra figures to use Wade on Westbrook at times, which would leave 6-2 Chalmers on 6-7 Thabo Sefolosha, a skilled defender averaging just 5.5 points this postseason.
But Chalmers also will need to defend Westbrook a lot, especially when Wade covers Harden. Though Westbrook averaged 20.5 points against the Heat, both point guards shot poorly — Chalmers 5 for 16 (31.3 percent) and Westbrook 13 for 42 (31.0 percent), with each generating as many turnovers as assists. Wade averaged 20.5 points in the two games (46.4 percent shooting) and Harden 15.5 (61.1).
“It’s going to be a big test for us,” James said. “We look forward to the challenge.”