MIAMI – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird duked it out in the NBA Finals three times in four seasons, although it seemed more like a million glorious battles. The two regular-season games between the rival Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics throughout the 1980s were must-see TV as those teams and their transcendent stars swept up a generation of new fans.
Michael Jordan followed as arguably the league’s greatest solo act with no equal to challenge him during the 90s.
Tuesday’s Christmas Day Finals rematch between the pillars of their respective conferences, LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, the Miami Heat vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, reminded just how riveting last season’s title series was and the undeniably tantalizing prospect of more to come, of an emerging Magic-Bird, Lakers-Celtics-style rivalry.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, a teenager during that great period, and assistant coach Bob McAdoo, a Lakers reserve for two Finals series against the Celtics, saw the makings of a modern-day rivalry between dueling MVP candidates and their championship-chasing teams last June.
“Both teams have multiple, once-in-a-generation players,” Spoelstra said prior to the Heat’s 103-97 Christmas Day win, referring to the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook as supporting superstars. ”You don’t see that too often, but we remember when we were in the Finals last year, the speed, athleticism, and competitiveness of that series, what we talked about was probably similar to what you saw in the 80s with those Celtics and Lakers teams. Coach McAdoo even said it reminded him of that because it was a force of nature of two teams of young, talented future hall of famers in their prime, and multiple ones on each team. That was a fierce, fierce series, and the five games did not properly tell how competitive that series was.”
The Heat won Games two through four by a margin no greater than six points. Tuesday’s intense matchup made it four of the last six between the two decided by six or less.
“Of course that’s a sexier matchup, as far as LeBron and me and Russell and D-Wade, Serge [Ibaka] and Chris Bosh, of course that’s the matchup everybody wants to see,” Durant said. “But you never know. We never try to concern ourselves like that, we try to take it a day at time, but it does play on last year, everybody talks about us building a rivalry. So, you know, if it does happen, that’d be fun, that’d be something great to be a part of.”
The new collective bargaining agreement, with its harsher luxury tax penalties, might ultimately determine the fate of this rivalry. The Thunder are in excellent position to contend for the foreseeable future. They made the difficult decision to trade James Harden before the season after locking up its young core of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka at manageable salaries through 2016.
“We’re excited about where we’re going, but still we want to win a championship now,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re not playing for next season or the next season after. We’re like every team, if you have a chance to win you want to win now.”
Heat owner Mickey Arison got one title with his dream-team trio and the Heat are prohibitive favorites to repeat. But, he’ll will have to commit to paying stiff luxury taxes to keep James, Wade and Bosh together to fulfill LeBron’s “not one, not two, not three…” prophecy.
The three All-Stars are under contract through 2016-17, but all three have early termination clauses after next season, and whispers of a James departure for the Lakers are already coming in like the warm Atlantic lapping the South Beach sands at low tide.