Several weeks before the season started, LeBron James invited Kevin Durant to his home in Ohio for four days of gruelling workouts. Hell Week, they called it.
Starting today, they will meet again. They call it the NBA finals.
They pushed each other to the limit in those training sessions during the NBA lockout. Now, fittingly, they face off again with the NBA championship on the line.
"It's only right. It's only right," James said. "We look forward to the challenge. It's going to be a big test for us."
James played at a rarefied level in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. He became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in the 2000 finals to have six 30-point games in a play-off series. He scored 29 in the one game when he did not reach 30.
His series averages against the Celtics: 33.6 points and 11 rebounds on 53 per cent shooting. He had five games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in the entire regular season – then did it five times in the series against Boston.
"He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it," said Erik Spoelstra, the Heat coach. "He's playing at a historic level during the play-offs, driving us with his will.
"We do not take his talent or his will or his competitiveness for granted. And we need every single bit of it. He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he's pushing the rest of the team, as well."
His teammate Dwayne Wade said: "He's amazing."
Criticised last season for deferring too often in crucial situations, James went into the summer driven by the pain of failing in the NBA finals. Even during the lockout, he did anything he could to improve – two-a-day workouts, studying with Hakeem Olajuwon, yoga, boxing, beach sprints, even asking Durant to come to his hometown of Akron for a few days of training.
In those sessions, they pushed each other to the limit.
"Me and KD, man, just tryin' to get better," James said in a video of one workout posted online.
Now, the two superstars are prepared to fight for one ring.
"I envisioned it every day we worked out," James said. "I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was."
James and the Heat lost to Dallas in last season's finals. Durant and the Thunder lost to Dallas in last season's Western Conference finals. Scarred by similar disappointment, they tried to make each other better. When the final series of the season begins tonight in Oklahoma City, they will have a close-up view of how far the other has come. "It's going to be a battle," Durant said.
The Heat and Thunder split two games during the regular season, each winning at home. Durant scored the most points in the NBA this season at 1,850; James was second with 1,683. James won the MVP award; Durant finished second. In these finals, one will finish first and the other second, again.
"It's not just about Kevin and LeBron," said Scott Brooks, the Thunder coach. "It's not about any other thing other than playing good basketball against a very good team. … Individually, they're the best players in the league.
"They have many ways that they score and many ways that they help their team win. They make winning basketball plays, they're both defensively very good, they both get rebounds, they both pass. But it's always about the Thunder against the Heat."
There is probably little argument that James and Durant have been the premier players in these play-offs. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists. Durant is at 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
Durant is celebrated for what he is doing as a 23-year-old rising star, but James is constantly reminded he is 27 and without a championship ring.
"LeBron James, I just have a feeling a lot of people are just waiting to pin failure on him versus objectively evaluating his game," the analyst Jeff Van Gundy said during the East finals. "I mean, think about it: James has an every-night pressure that no one else has."
It seems no matter what James does or how well he plays, some followers of the NBA cannot get past The Decision, the infamous televised special where he announced he was signing with Miami in 2010.
Those around James say the scrutiny drives him. He says he does his best to ignore it all.
"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person," James said. "I can't get involved in that. People can have their own opinions, and rightfully so. They can have their own opinions. For me, I just go out and play at a high level, and do whatever it takes for us to win. I can be happy with that."
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