Commentary

They can't both win

Updated: June 19, 2012, 10:17 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Kevin Durant & LeBron JamesAP Photo/Sue OgrockiEven when they try to blend, Kevin Durant (left) and LeBron James are easy to tell apart.
We say our prayers, are kind to stray poodles and do not download annoying ring tones.

And how are we rewarded? With this delicious chunk of hoops heaven plopping into our laps: the two greatest players on Earth, LeBron James versus Kevin Durant, in an NBA Finals.

God sure must love ball.

The King versus the King-In-Waiting, the three-time MVP versus the three-time scoring champ, The One They Hate versus The One They Love, for the Championship of the World, the Keys to the NBA's Next Dynasty, and the title of Greatest Basketball Player on Planet Earth.

Loser empties ashtrays in Kabul for a year.

The question is: Who do you like?

They look nothing alike, play nothing alike, and live in two cities that have nothing in common, apart from both towns liking their dinner served absolutely rare. In Miami, it's sushi. In Oklahoma City, it's steak.

James is four years older by birthdays than Durant and 40 years older by troubles. He is only 27, but looks 37, which is what comes from playing under 1,000 pounds per square inch of pressure every game. Children and grandmothers spit his name for the way he jilted Cleveland, for the way he promised seven rings before winning one, for the Hobbit beard.

Durant is only 23 and somehow even fresher than that. He plays Way Out West, in a college-football town that's never had a major professional sports team before. The state's governor, Mary Fallin, said this week she hopes OKC becomes "the national champions." It's adorable, really.

There is a naiveté to Durant that James lost years ago. He rarely drinks. He wears a schoolboy's backpack. He kisses and hugs his mom after every home game. He's so baby-faced, you want to measure his height against the wall. James is so worry-faced, you can tell he's spent his life against one.

The two have faced each other before, but never like this, never with this much on the line. The stakes are so high you can barely see over the chips.

James has beaten Durant 12 games out of 16, but Durant has grown like a weed this year -- he has improved his passing, defense and playmaking -- and the two split this season.

James is playing at his absolute zenith, playing like Michael or Oscar or Magic right now. He is full of fire and brilliance and glare, as if losing means the electric chair. The deferring James, the after-you James, the allergic-to-the-lane 2011 NBA Finals James, has vanished and been replaced with a bloodless hit man.

And yet he has still not been as money as Kevin Klutch, who seems to be able to bury 28-foot game winners with all the stress of a fat man popping a Cheeto into his mouth.

His style is sweeter than James'. He has more panache, more grace. He finishes with a balance James never seems to have. But Durant lacks the wild abandon James has, the standard-shaking dunks, the pterodactyl swoops from unknown airspace that make people drop $5.95 boxes of popcorn.

They are both thrill fests. Durant is the better pure scorer, James the better pure player. Durant can start any rally. James can stop any. Durant can get off his shot in a redwood forest. James can pass the ball through a button hole.

LeBron finished first in the MVP voting and Durant second, and many howled for the reverse. They both wear glasses for no reason and numbers on their chest for good reasons. Durant wears 35 for the age of death of the AAU coach who formed him. James wears 6 instead of the 23 he wore for six years in deference to his 23-wearing hero, Michael Jordan. They both play the same position, forward, and James will stick to Durant plenty. They both are as ring-less as single mothers.

They are closer than you think. Both dumped by Dallas in last season's playoffs, they commiserated during the lockout with a two-man, four-day "Hell Week" as James called it, at the University of Akron -- lifting, shooting, and swimming. James saw Durant's drive up close and knew he'd probably have to go through him to get a title. Now, here they are, in Hell Fortnight.

When James taps knuckles with Durant each game, how will he not see himself? After all, he was 22, just about Durant's age now, in his first Finals, in Cleveland, with a road laying out in front of him so shiny and perfect you could almost see the parades coming at him. How can he not fear that Durant is about to steal his path?

It feels like a watershed moment, like there is just enough rocket fuel to launch one to greatness, not the other. If James doesn't win this one, if Durant gets a ring first, Durant may have such confidence James will never beat him, the window will have closed, the student will snatch the pebble and never return.

As ever, all the pressure is on James. Lose and it's another offseason of unkempt beards and unanswered questions.

But win and he blows some of that blast furnace onto Durant, redirects the hounds, leaves him simmering in all those insomnia worries about unfulfilled promise. Stuff like, "What good is owning scoring titles but no real ones?"

Me, I like James. Durant's day will come soon enough. Followed by so many more.

But my Lord, this could be good.

And to think they almost canceled this season.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com