|LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant: one of the premier Finals match-ups over the last 20 years. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 2012 NBA Finals will pit a 3-time MVP against the league's scoring champion for the past three seasons.
That match-up between Miami Heat forward LeBron James and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant has been the hot topic in advance of Tuesday night's Game 1 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In terms of pure superstar wattage, it doesn't get much better than that. Indeed, the post-Michael Jordan era of the NBA has been decidedly lacking in major head-to-head star match-ups, for a variety of reasons.
None bigger than the fact that James and Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, the league's two biggest names and best perimeter players over the last decade, have never faced off in a Finals despite making 10 combined Finals appearances in the last 13 seasons.
Asked on Monday whether he was disappointed that he had never faced Bryant in the Finals, James laughed and cracked one of his best lines in recent memory.
"LeBron and Kobe? I was disappointed that LeBron [vs.] whoever it was didn't happen," he said. "I didn't give a damn if it was Kobe or not."
This year marks the third Finals appearance for James during his nine seasons. His first came when he was 22 years old, going against Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs and his second came in 2011 against a veteran Dallas Mavericks team led by Dirk Nowitzki. The perimeter vs. big man match-up took the luster off of those series.
Meanwhile, Bryant's seven Finals trips took place against balanced rather than star-driven teams or when Shaquille O'Neal was still the dominant force on the Lakers because Bryant was a youngster. The biggest name Bryant has faced in the Finals has been Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard or Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, another situation where the match-up was thrown off by the perimeter vs. big man dynamic. Bryant did go against future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, but neither was at the very height of the NBA fame in 2008 or 2010.
But in James vs. Durant, the two players figure to go head-to-head, defending each other for long stretches during the game. Both have raised their games in the playoffs. The numbers are ridiculous. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and .8 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent; Durant is averaging 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals and shooting 50.5 percent.
"Hey, listen, I understand it's LeBron and Durant -- that's you guys' storylines," James said. "I'm in the Finals so it doesn't matter. I don't care who it's against. It could be us against a college team or high school team."
Here's a quick look at some of the best star match-ups of the past 20 years.
5. Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone, 1997. Malone was voted the MVP, but Jordan, obviously, was the greatest player on the planet. The Chicago Bulls eliminated the Utah Jazz in 6 games and then did it again in 1998. Malone wound up passing Jordan on the all-time scoring list, but his failure to bring home a ring during his two shots against the Bulls has limited his historical standing.
5. Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley, 1993. Barkley was voted the MVP, but Jordan, obviously, was the greatest player on the planet. Sensing a pattern? The Bulls eliminated the Phoenix Suns in six games. Barkley joined a long list of perennial All-Stars who were kept from the Larry O'Brien Trophy by Jordan's six titles in an eight-year reign of dominance.
3. Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon, 1994. This one gains bonus points because of the head-to-head nature of the match-up, even if it occured while Jordan was taking a sabbatical to play baseball, and because the series went seven games. Olajuwon's Houston Rockets triumphed over the New York Knicks, contributing to Ewing's reputation as one of the best players in league history never to win a ring.
2. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, 2012. This one has the potential to overtake the No. 1 position, depending on how things play out. James and Durant are clearly the two best players on the planet and signature performances from both could put them into a category trailing just about everyone in modern history, with the exception of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.
1. Michael Jordan vs. Clyde Drexler, 1992. The Bulls handled the Portland Trail Blazers in six games as tensions ran thick between the two Dream Team teammates. The high-flying Drexler, always overlooked, had his chance to dethrone Jordan or at least get himself closer into the conversation. But Air Jordan was simply a cut above The Glyde, and this Finals match-up, which featured Jordan's famouse shrug after hitting six 3-pointers in a half, helped seal it.
Honorable mention: Allen Iverson vs. Shaquille O'Neal (2001), LeBron James vs. Dirk Nowitzki (2011), Patrick Ewing vs. Tim Duncan (1999), Shaquille O'Neal vs. Dirk Nowitzki (2006).