OKLAHOMA CITY - The NBA final decides basketball supremacy and determines what team rules the league’s roost.
What the championship series doesn’t usually do is provide a referendum on who the league’s best player is.
That’s because it is relatively rare for the loop’s two premier players to face off with everything on the line.
It once happened regularly — Boston’s Bill Russell had a host of memorable clashes with Wilt Chamberlain — which usually were won by Russell’s Celtics, despite Herculean efforts by Chamberlain for the Warriors or Lakers.
Magic Johnson and Bird carried a struggling league on their backs by meeting up countless times with a title on the line.
But things have changed which, of course, makes this year’s matchup between the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant particularly appealing.
This could be the start of another rivalry for the ages.
The NBA is a star-driven league and no two of its constellations currently shine brighter than this duo.
James won his third MVP award for his work this season, while Durant claimed his third scoring title in a row.
They attack in different ways, but neither can be contained and are the major reasons why their teams are successful.
Both stepped up when needed most — in the conference finals — with explosive performances.
James scored 45 points against Boston in a Game 6 that could have sent his team packing for the summer, then played well again in Game 7.
Durant throttled the league’s top regular season outfit, the San Antonio Spurs, by doing whatever he wanted on offence, particularly in clutch moments.
It isn’t just scoring prowess that puts James and Durant on top. James has always been an elite passer and Durant is underrated in that area. Both also rebound better than most other small forwards and can lock down opponents when engaged defensively.
They are also thoroughbreds capable of playing 45 minutes a night if need be.
While great players have matched up in recent years in the finals — James versus Dirk Nowitzki last season, Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard in 2009, James vs. Tim Duncan in 2008 — the two very best athletes going at it in the championship series has become a special treat.
Magic vs. Bird, like Chamberlain vs. Russell, is yesterday’s news. Michael Jordan faced Magic once, but never faced Hakeem Olajuwon when he was the league’s second-best player.
The closest we’ve come to a matchup of this magnitude of late was when Shaquille O’Neal went up against MVP Allen Iverson in 2001.
Jordan and his Chicago Bulls faced Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998, during the period when the pair split four straight MVP awards.
Jordan also defeated Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns back in 1993, when Barkley was neck-and-neck with Jordan in terms of dominance and earned his only MVP award.
A meeting of two megastars who play the same position is rarer still, with Olajuwon vs. O’Neal and Jordan vs. Portland’s Clyde Drexler in 1992 being most similar to this year’s showdown.
Drexler posted phenomenal, LeBron-like numbers (26.3 points, 7.0 assists, 7.4 rebounds) that year in the playoffs, but Jordan’s line was slightly more impressive thanks to his offensive efficiency and the Bulls came out on top.
We’ll see if history repeats itself.