LeBron James and Tim Duncan are arguably the two best players of the last decade and also talents that come along perhaps once in a generation. Their meeting in the 2013 NBA Finals could not be more appropriate.
For years, the basketball world has impatiently waited for Kobe Bryant and James to meet in the title round. In the minds of many, a head-to-head matchup between both players would finally put an end to the debate of which player is in fact the best.
James’ individual brilliance in the last half-decade or so coupled with his 2012 Finals MVP trophy have elevated him to a level of excellence reserved only for the historically great.
On the other hand, Bryant’s ring count places him near the top of the standings of active legends. The former league MVP has not only consistently been great but he has participated in more championship parades than any other active future Hall of Fame player.
Thus, every discussion centering around the topic of best player of this current generation typically revolves around Bryant, with James essentially taking the torch from the Black Mamba.
Much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in years before him, Duncan is often forgotten when this conversation arises. His excellence both individually and collectively among players still in the league is unmatched.
Since drafting Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs have won four championships. In addition, notwithstanding the shortened 1998-99 campaign, the Silver and Black has consistently won 50 games or more in every season during the former Demon Deacon’s illustrious 16-year career.
Duncan’s body of work includes two league MVP trophies as well as three Finals MVP awards. Furthermore, he has been a permanent fixture on both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams throughout his career.
Consequently, there is an actual conversation to be had on the merits of whether Bryant is in fact the league’s premier player of his generation. Heck, James articulated as much when he stated Duncan was perhaps the most dominant player of the last 15 years.
This makes the 2007 NBA Finals in retrospect a far more interesting historical event.
The Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 and essentially taught James a valuable lesson in the difficulties involved in winning a title.
San Antonio essentially forced Cleveland to play left-handed, a feat the Cavaliers could not accomplish. Gregg Popovich exploited every weakness of that Cavs team and turned that squad into a non-threat.
The Cavs on the other hand threw numerous wrinkles at the Spurs, and San Antonio countered them all. The trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan were simply too much for Cleveland to handle.
Duncan was more than adequately surrounded with talent while James’ teammates were mostly shut down as evidenced by Cleveland’s 39.5 percent field goal shooting in the 2007 Finals.
Interestingly enough, James often cites the 2007-08 Boston Celtics as the team that prompted his defection to the Miami Heat. Their core of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett stood in the path of James’ march towards immortality.
Naturally, the Celtics’ “big three” happens to coincide with the Heat’s in terms of player positions (shooting guard, small forward and power forward). But it’s quite possible the Spurs’ formula planted the initial seed in the mind of the Chosen One.
In doing so, the Spurs set in motion a chain of events that would only truly involve them six years down the road. James has become what Duncan was in the spring of 2007.
Many believe he is not only the best at his position now, but that he is on the cusp of becoming the best small forward ever. His consistent dominance on both sides of the ball is unmatched and yet there is often this feeling that he has another gear in him.
At least once in every postseason, James has tapped into it and unleashed an amazing basketball gift for the masses.
Prior to meeting the Spurs in the 2007 Finals, James turned into what Charles Barkley dubbed a raging inferno in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals with a spectacular 48-point extravaganza.
In the spring of 2008, he was at it again in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston. He poured in 45 points and dished out six assists before bowing out against the Celtics in one of the greatest games involving both teams.
The following postseason, James was simply sensational in six games against the Orlando Magic in the conference finals. He averaged a ridiculous 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and eight assists per game during the series.
Although James’ final season in Cleveland was a complete flameout, he still performed for an audience in a playoff game that’s been completely forgotten. In Game 3 of a second round game in Boston, LeBron completely eviscerated the Celtics with a stellar night in which he dropped 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a 29-point road win.
Sensing a theme? Well there’s more.
In late May 2011, James brought the Heat back from an eight-point deficit with a little over two minutes left in the game. He connected on a couple of shots from downtown and hit a clutch jumper to take the lead in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. On the ensuing possession, he blocked a Derrick Rose jumper to seal the victory. His final tally: 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on the night.
In 2012, LeBron Game 6’d the Celtics. If further explanation is truly needed, have a look at this.
The bodies of work are what make the matchup of James and Duncan such a compelling one for purists. Duncan has been called upon numerous times to carry his Spurs by any means necessary and he delivered the goods on multiple occasions in his earlier days.
He is just as productive at his advanced age as he was in is prime, albeit in far lesser minutes.
Between age, competitive balance and roster tweaks, it’s tough to predict with any type of certainty whether these future Hall of Fame players will meet again in the Finals. Hence, this could very well be the last time we get to see them head-to-head.
Savor this one folks, LeBron-Duncan II should not only be better than the first matchup, it should also be one for the ages.
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