INDEPENDENCE: LeBron James and Kevin Durant have trained together at least twice in their professional careers, including what was deemed “Hell Week” at the University of Akron during the 2011 lockout.
They got together again for one day after the 2012 Olympics, although some considered the pairing strange because James and the Miami Heat defeated Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the NBA championship before the two won gold for Team USA in London.
Four-time MVP James, 32, has never had a problem mentoring younger players like Durant, 28, no matter what happens during the postseason. But after Durant was voted the 2014 MVP, James probably figured those days had come to an end.
“I think it reaches a point where that guy thinks he’s good enough where he doesn’t want to talk to me,” James said. “I always have an open-door policy. When those guys get comfortable and they feel like they got enough of the blueprint, they’re like, ‘OK, I got enough, I’m done with you.’?”
The former workout partners headline a long-anticipated Cavaliers-Warriors showdown in the 2017 NBA Finals, which open Thursday at Oracle Arena. The free-agency addition of Durant to the Golden State roster has made the Warriors heavy favorites over the defending champion Cavs as the two teams meet for the title for an unprecedented third consecutive year.
An eight-time All-Star, Durant left Oklahoma City to join an offensive juggernaut that includes two-time MVP Stephen Curry (a four-time All-Star), Klay Thompson (3), Draymond Green (2) and Andre Iguodala (1). Those five have totaled 18 All-Star appearances. The Cavs counter with five players who have been selected to 25 All-Star Games — James (13), Kyrie Irving (4), Kevin Love (4), Deron Williams (3), Kyle Korver (1).
James said he has competed against such stacked rosters before. While with the Cavs and Miami Heat, he faced the San Antonio Spurs in the 2009, 2013 and 2014 Finals, winning once against Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard (who played in the latter two), Manu Ginobli and coach Gregg Popovich. James considers the Boston Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and coach Doc Rivers, who ousted him in the East semifinals in 2008 and 2010, on par with the 2017 Warriors.
“It’s going to be very challenging, not only on me mentally, but on our ballclub and on our franchise,” James said of this year’s task.
The presence of Durant makes it even more mentally taxing.
“He’s one of the most dangerous guys we have in the world already,” James said of Durant on Sunday after practice at the Cleveland Clinic Courts. “So it makes it even more dangerous when you equip that talent, that skill, with those guys.”
During the Warriors’ 12-0 run in the playoffs, Durant has averaged 25.2 points per game, second behind Curry’s 28.6. Durant is shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range, while adding 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
By comparison, James’ numbers are 32.5 points, 57 percent from the field and 42 percent beyond the arc, with eight rebounds and seven assists.
Since he joined the Warriors, Durant is more active offensively than he was with the Thunder.
“I think you adapt to the culture, you adapt to the style,” James said. “That’s the same thing that happened to me when I went to Miami. I started to slash more and move more without the ball, shoot more standstill 3s and figure out ways I could be more productive than just having the ball in isolation. It’s the right thing to do.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t reveal whether he’ll have James guard Durant exclusively. But the Christmas Day meeting in Cleveland, a 109-108 victory won on Irving’s fadeaway with 3.4 seconds left, proved to be a James-Durant showdown. Durant poured in 36 points, hit all 12 of his free throws, pulled down 15 defensive rebounds and added three assists and a blocked shot. James countered with 31 points, hitting 4-of-8 3s, while contributing 13 rebounds, four assists and a blocked shot.
That’s what observers expect every night in the Finals.
James might long for the defensive challenge on Durant. After the Warriors signed Durant on July 7, upstaging the Cavs’ championship, James told Sports Illustrated he set his alarm for 5 a.m. and started working out at a West Hollywood, Calif., gym at 6. He admitted to SI that he usually didn’t train that hard that soon in the offseason.
But James said Sunday that Durant has never pushed him, even though his answer seemed to go down that path.
“I’ve always paid attention since he was in high school,” James said. “We worked out in numerous summer times. We’ve competed at the highest level, we’ve been on the same team together, competed for gold. He’s someone I’ve always looked [at], seeing the way he played the game and mastered the game and gotten better and better every year.
“I don’t look at anybody pushing me — I kind of push myself. But I’ve always looked to see what he was doing. If he went out and got 50 one night, let me see if I can do that the next night. Or if we went against each other, just try to compete, that’s what the fans would like.”
Whether the addition of Durant to the Warriors is motivating James, he doesn’t care that bookmakers in Las Vegas have installed the Cavs as big underdogs.
“I only play blackjack in Vegas, anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” James said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.