Just before the final buzzer sounded on the Golden State Warriors‘ championship-clinching Game 5 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena on Monday night — just as Kevin Durant was about to become an NBA champion for the first time in his illustrious 10-year professional career — the first one on the scene to congratulate the soon-to-be-named Finals MVP was none other than his longtime rival and Finals opponent, LeBron James.
Just as he’s been in the past two NBA Finals matchups between the Cavs and Warriors, James was undeniably brilliant in this series, averaging 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game — making him the first player in league history to average a triple-double in the Finals — while shooting a sterling 56.4 percent from the floor. And Durant went toe-to-toe with him, averaging 35.2 points per game on 55.5 percent shooting from the field, 47.4 percent shooting from 3-point range, and a 92.7 percent mark from the free-throw line, capped by a scintillating 39-point performance in the clinching Game 5.
“With all the success that he’s gotten throughout his career, I’ve always been proud of him and I’m always excited to see him grow as a player,” James told reporters during his media session between Games 3 and 4 back in Cleveland.
It’s been five years since James won his first NBA championship as a member of the Miami Heat, at the expense of Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. During his postgame news conference on Monday night, James recalled the sensation of breaking through that Durant’s now feeling.
“It’s a great feeling,” James said. “When you’re able to work hard, you’re able to put in the work and accomplish a feat like that, it’s something that we all dream about. Growing up in our inner cities, a lot of hard work and through high school, through college, if you went to college, and through the NBA, you always hope that you will be in a position to be able to not only compete for a championship but win a championship, and it’s a great feeling.”
As you might expect, of course, James would’ve vastly preferred the alternative.
“Well, I’m not happy he won his first. I’m not happy at all,” James said. “But at the end of the day, from when I played him in the 2012 Finals to now, like I said, experience is the best teacher in life, and he’s just experiencing and experiencing and experiencing. And it also helps when you are able to experience some things with this team, as well. He felt like he needed to reassemble and reassess his career and come here.”
James likened the experience to a different, much more personal first.
“Getting that first championship, for me, was like having my first son,” James said. “It was just a proud moment, something that you never, ever forget. And at the end of the day, nobody can — no matter what anybody says from now on in your career or whatever they say, they can never take away from you being a champion. That’s something that they are always going to speak about, about you. It may be, like, the last thing they may say, but they are always going to have to say that you’re a champion.”
Now, they’ll have to say it about Kevin Durant. And they’ll have to say that, when it happened, LeBron James was front and center, ready to show his respect for a job well done.
“[James is] the only person that I was looking at since 2012,” Durant told ABC’s Doris Burke on the court after Game 5. “He’s the only one I looked at and said, ‘He’s the only guy who could look me eye-to-eye.’ I knew it was going to be a battle. I just tried to challenge him. He averaged a damn triple-double, man. You can’t stop the guy. But we battled.”
And with the Warriors and Cavaliers both looking poised to retain their spots atop their respective conferences, that battle might just be getting started.
“I told him, ‘We tied up now,’ and we gonna try to do this thing again,” Durant said.
More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Durant wins NBA Finals MVP award after winning first title
• Stephen Curry smokes championship cigar live on TV
• NBA Finals winners/losers: Steve Kerr is a champion again
• Even ‘Jeopardy’ is taking shots at Kevin Durant for joining the Warriors
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