- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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They're suddenly closing in on closing time in what looked to be a series for the ages. The Miami Heat could very well finish off these NBA Finals Thursday night, finish them off in five games, which means that the end might come too soon to call this a classic.
Not that Larry Bird cares.
Larry Legend has already seen enough from LeBron James and Kevin Durant to proclaim that Miami versus Oklahoma City, even if the Thunder can't stave off elimination in Game 5, has given us all something that even a vintage Celtics-Lakers series from the '80s never could.
The two best players in the game, playing essentially the same position, locked in a direct, face-to-face duel.
"They used to say that about me and Earvin, but that was really just the Celtics going up against the Lakers," Bird said of yesteryear's battles with his old rival Magic Johnson.
"These guys are really going heads-up," Bird continued. "They're really two different players, but it's something that I love to see, because these two guys are going to head-to-head."
Foul trouble in Games 2 and 3 prompted Thunder coach Scott Brooks to shift Durant away from James coverage for the bulk of Game 4, but the distinction from the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations is clear.
James and Durant weren't catapulted onto the biggest stage in the sport with a contentious history from their college days. There's no cultural divide in play with these two, nor the delicious tension that was baked right in when Bird and Magic wound up on opposite coasts, playing for the league's two most storied franchises.
Yet there's something undeniably tasty, something unique, when the two most serious threats to Bird's recognized standing as the greatest small forward of all time are out there checking each other in crunch time.
"I used to love it when Earvin would slide into the post to guard me," Bird said. "But it was never a heads-up battle. It was a lot different with Earvin.
"You don't see this very often."
And that's why ESPN.com was moved to survey some of the finest swingmen in history, eager to hear more from Bird and four fellow Hall of Famers about what they see when they watch LeBron and KD trading haymakers.
Elgin Baylor, Hall of Fame, Class of 1977
Elgin Baylor is generally regarded as the game's first transcendent small forward. He could score, pass, rebound and, above all, play the game in the air despite standing just 6-foot-5, whether that meant levitating in the lane or hovering at rim level.
So Baylor naturally gravitates toward the more frequent rim attacker, and not his fellow D.C.-area native Durant, when asked to size up these Finals foils.
"LeBron has it all," Baylor says. "Size, strength, speed. I just enjoy watching him play. Durant is a terrific player. He's a pure outside shooter. But LeBron ... just the fact of his size, how athletic he is. He's amazing.
"LeBron plays everything. What position doesn't he play? He's strong enough to play center when he has to."
Durant has to do a little more, even with those D.C. ties, to secure the blessing of Baylor, who turns 78 in September.
"For his size, he should be rebounding a little bit more," Baylor said.
The man whose 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals still stand as a league record for the championship round was then asked one more time about the 3-man built like a linebacker who can clinch his first-ever championship in the forthcoming Game 5.
"I don't know," Baylor said, "how much better LeBron can get."
George Gervin, Hall of Fame, Class of 1996
You know who loves hearing the comparisons between Iceberg Slim -- as ESPN's Jalen Rose has dubbed Kevin Durant -- and the original Iceman?
George Gervin himself.
"He's the only one I've seen who reminds me of me," Gervin said. "I haven't seen anybody else. I guess most of it is his size, because he's tall and lanky like I was, but he's definitely the one and I ain't got nothin' but respect for him. I love his game."
The primary difference, of course, is that Durant stands three or four inches taller than the 6-7 Iceman, who floated from small forward to shooting guard as his career progressed. Another biggie: Durant's game eventually will be consistently multidimensional; Gervin's obsession with scoring was not.
The Iceman, though, naturally isn't sweating such specifics. He swears that he actually reveled in the nearly two decades that went by with no heir to the finger-rolling throne -- "Kinda puts me in a special place," Gervin once famously said -- but that all changed with Durant's emergence.
He's the only one I've seen who reminds me of me. I haven't seen anybody else. I guess most of it is his size, because he's tall and lanky like I was, but he's definitely the one and I ain't got nothin' but respect for him. I love his game.
”-- George Gervin on Kevin Durant
It changed forever when Gervin, through a program overseen by the NBA, became an occasional breakfast mentor to Durant and former Thunder teammate Jeff Green. It'd be a stretch to say that Gervin and Durant speak regularly, but the connection has been made.
"He's the kind of guy who (doesn't) think he knows everything," Gervin said. "He's the kind of guy who will listen to someone like myself because he wants to get better.
"He knows that the wheel has already been invented. He doesn't have to re-invent the wheel. You can just talk to some of us old guys to get little tips (about how) to take your game to the next level.
"That's what we as veterans want. I saw Magic (Johnson) on TV the other day talking about how LeBron wanted to work out with him last summer. We want these young guys to seek us out and make us a part of making them better. It's hard to try to go into their circle and say, 'Let me show you something.' We love it when they seek us out."
So if that call comes from Durant down the line ...
"All us old vets you talk to, we always try to see the things a young player can improve on," Gervin said. "I'm not saying anything's wrong (with Durant's game) -- nothing is wrong -- but I think what he'll learn over time is how to go to the hole more (and) how to use both hands (better).
"Over time he'll really see how valuable it is to not always depend on the jump shot. When you're able to go around guys -- throw in a left-handed hook or a right-handed hook -- it makes you tougher to guard. But that comes with time. His potential is scary.
"He can shoot from a lot farther out than me. And I love that he (doesn't) explode ... he just glides. He glides to the rim. He's got the kind of game -- and I use this term figuratively -- that can last forever. He can play for a long, long time."
Sounds like a game conducive to generating future Durant-versus-LeBron showdowns on the Finals stage.
"Them two guys," Gervin said, "they're definitely the ones you're gonna be looking at for a long, long time. It's one of the all-time great matchups."
Rick Barry, Hall of Fame, Class of 1987
The MVP of the 1975 NBA Finals disputes the suggestion that he's one of the most vocal LeBron James critics in circulation.
Rick Barry maintains that his loudest LeBron complaints over the years have been reserved for James' coaches. And still are.
In a phone chat this week in the midst of an Alaska fishing trip, he fired away again at the authority figures in LeBron's life. Without naming any of the NBA or youth coaches LeBron's had, Barry blasted them as a group for failing to work with the nine-year veteran on making better use of his first dribble, curling sharper off screens to get away from defenders and facing up with smarter intent.
Barry's chief complaint with James himself has been trained on an elbow that, according to the shooting guru, sticks out too far when he shoots. Yet Barry acknowledges, with LeBron just one win away from his first championship, that the 27-year-old has been gradually addressing that flaw on his own.
"I've made a big deal about the elbow in the past, but he's got it in a great deal," Barry said. "I wish he'd get in even a little more, but he's improved that and he's just playing phenomenal. I'm really happy to see LeBron play the way he's been playing, because people expect so much more from him than is reasonable at times.
"He's playing incredibly aggressive, going to the hole, living in the paint, making his free throws. I just hope LeBron keeps working on his game, keeps working on all those little things I always talk about that he was never taught. It's the fault of the people that had their hands on him and didn't show him.
If he ever becomes a (consistent) shooter, if he ever gets to that point, you might have to outlaw him. He'd be virtually unguardable.
”-- Rick Barry on LeBron James
"I talk about this stuff because I love greatness. I know LeBron can be even better. That's scary to think about, but as good as he is he can be a lot better. So I say it as constructive criticism.
"If he ever becomes a (consistent) shooter, if he ever gets to that point, you might have to outlaw him. He'd be virtually unguardable. He has to get to the point where he wants to get fouled when he goes to the basket. He's got to get that mindset. If he gets that mindset, forget it. It takes his game to a total new level."
If James ever gets to the zone Barry describes, imagine the resultant burden on Durant, who already sits first in line in the entire league to try to keep the gap as narrow as possible.
"We're talking about two great basketball players," Barry said. "I used to fantasize about doing the things these incredible athletes are doing. Those two guys are so athletic, they do things that are just kind of spooky. I was a rank amateur compared to these guys.
"Durant doesn't have the strength of LeBron, of course, but he's five years away from reaching his peak. Think about that: They say that the peak years for a basketball player are from (age) 28 to 32. Oh my God, it's scary how good he's going to be.
"They're just so much more athletic. Dr. J took things to another level from what Elgin was doing, but the thing that Durant has that Doc didn't have and LeBron still doesn't have is that consistent outside shot. He's a great shooter. He does some special things and he's such a great kid. I like how he goes about his business: Durant's statement is making the basket.
"The kid should really have the ball in his hands even more. He doesn't have it in his hands enough. He also needs to get down in the low post -- get with Clifford Ray -- and work on his inside game. With his size and his passing ability, he's got to develop a post game. You need to be able to have that."
First, though, Barry is hoping to see James get that first ring -- and first Finals MVP -- to silence some of the bashers at last.
"Is (the criticism) fair all the time?" Barry said. "Absolutely not. He seems to handle it pretty well, but sometimes I think it's blown totally out of proportion. He's one of the most gifted basketball players I've ever seen. But the great players are always scrutinized."
Adrian Dantley, Hall of Fame, Class of 2008
The debate has already begun in the nation's capital, stoked most recently by Mike Wise of the Washington Post..
Is Kevin Durant already the best player ever to hail from the District of Columbia?
Durant himself says no. He's not ready to go there yet. Early on in these Finals, Durant respectfully said that it's too soon to put him on the same level with Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and Adrian Dantley.
Let the record show, though, that Dantley isn't blocking the door.
The two-time scoring champion and 1977 NBA Rookie of the Year -- who made six All-Star appearances and played for six more teams after being drafted by the Buffalo Braves -- has been tracking Durant since high school. He also coached against him during his brief stint filling in for the cancer-stricken George Karl with the Denver Nuggets late in the 2009-10 season.
"He's going to be right up there as one of the greatest players to ever play," Dantley said. "He works and works and works."
Yet Durant, as Dantley sees it, is fortunate that he was born in 1988.
"If he was playing 20 years ago, he never would have been a small forward," Dantley said. "He would have been a center. They would have just told him to get inside.
"You're not used to a guy his size putting the ball on the floor. Bob McAdoo was a great perimeter player, but you never saw guys that big putting the ball (down). Magic was the first. And now Durant.
"I like watching him play. I like both of them: LeBron and Durant. Both of them are right up there."
Larry Bird, Hall of Fame, Class of 1998
Rewind to where the discussion started and Bird is still salivating.
He's not sure how much longer we'll actually be able to refer to James and Durant as small forwards, given that both could end up migrating to power forward and that, as Bird concedes, position labels "are kind of outdated." Yet it's not long before the Pacers' personnel boss, in the same conversation, is projecting that "the sky's the limit for both of them."
Bird hasn't forgotten how it felt to be wowed in his teens by the powerful sight of Indiana native George McGinnis, scoring in bruising bunches for the Pacers of the ABA. But he confesses that James, as a basketball specimen, graded out on a level unique unto himself on Bird's scorecard when he burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old rookie wrecking ball in the 2003-04 season.
"George came into the league so strong," Bird said. "He could score 40 or 50 points easy. I thought to myself, 'This guy is something else.'
"But we've never seen anyone like LeBron in our league who was this big and strong and could pass like this. He can control a game and take over a game just with his passing ability. And then he can take it right to you when he wants to.
"I obviously see LeBron a lot more, but I still remember when we played OKC last year and Durant made every play he needed to make in the fourth quarter (and overtime) to make sure his team won. He was always a good shooter, but now he's an all-around great player ... who's only 23."
As somebody smart noted at the top: You don't see this very often.
"These guys are so good," Bird said. "I'm glad I'm out of the league."
How special is LeBron versus Durant? The game's greatest small forwards weigh in.