Though conspiracy theories will never die, there is one simple truth about the NBA: The league likes its stars more than its cities.
And tonight, the league welcomes arguably its two brightest stars to its showcase event â" the NBA Finals.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James.
LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant.
No matter whose name is first on the marquee, there's one thing that doesn't matter in these Finals: which cities are involved.
What matters is star power. And that essentially boils down to two factors: Is the player among the best in the league, and do the fans like him? Or do fans hate him enough to watch and rip their hair out while rooting against him?
Durant plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team stuck in the dreaded limbo of small- market status but part of the TV-ratings bonanza these NBA playoffs have generated.
The effervescent Durant is the No. 1 reason.
"Durant has the 'it' factor," said ESPN play-by-play man Mike Breen. "There's something about him. He has charisma, he's the humble superstar, and also just the way he plays for a guy that's nearly 7-foot (tall). He can shoot from anywhere. He's a special, special player, but he seems to have that charisma that people are attracted to (even if they) aren't basketball fans."
Part of that is rooted in the NBA lockout last summer, during which Durant traveled the country playing basketball in various venues and putting up legendary numbers. He touched the fans. In turn, they have grown to love him back. Oklahoma City jerseys now can be seen coast to coast, far beyond the borders of Oklahoma.
Durant, who is averaging 27.8 points and 7.9 rebounds in the playoffs this year, moved quickly to quell the white-hot spotlight on his matchup with the Miami Heat's James, saying Monday in a news conference, "Everybody is going to make the most out of the matchup, me vs. LeBron. But it's the Thunder vs. the Heat."
Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz were unable to stop Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from winning the 1997 NBA Finals.
This is the fifth time a league scoring champion and an MVP have matched up in the NBA Finals. Durant beat Kobe Bryant for the scoring title, averaging 28 points, while James nailed down his third MVP award.
Durant isn't the only person pushing aside the individual matchup for the team clash. Count Nuggets coach George Karl among those eagerly awaiting the strategy and multiple appealing matchups.
"I think the most talented and two best teams made it to the Finals," Karl said, "and there should be somewhat of a celebration that through a crazy year ... this year could have gotten to the point where the fourth- or fifth-best team could have gotten to the Finals. Or maybe because of injuries in a compact season, how it panned out in the playoffs, I think, turned out to be actually pretty fruitful for the NBA."
James has been a magnet for criticism, but there is no arguing the extraordinary level he played at in the latter games of the Eastern Conference finals. His 45 points in Game 6 against Boston were the centerpiece for a performance for the ages. He's averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in the playoffs this year. If he continues that, he may well be hoisting his first title trophy in his ninth NBA season.
"I think LeBron is finally learning how to embrace the pressure," said NBA TV's Greg Anthony. "He is now at peace with himself, and I think that is why he is performing better in bigger moments than he has in the past.
"In a way, I think (James and Durant) are more alike than they are different. Both guys are so team-oriented; both guys understand that they win when their teammates play well. There have been times when they have both had to take the game over and they both have a skill set that is conducive to that. ... They have great basketball IQs. They understand in order for them to win, other guys have to be in a position to play well."
Scoring champion vs. MVP
When Kevin Durant and LeBron James match up tonight in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it will be the fifth time a scoring champ faces an MVP â" in this case, scoring champ Durant vs. MVP James. The first four:
1967: MVP Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers defeated scoring champion Rick Barry's Warriors
1970: MVP Willis Reed's Knicks defeated scoring champion Jerry West's Lakers
1993: Scoring champion Michael Jordan's Bulls defeated MVP Charles Barkley's Suns
1997: Scoring champion Michael Jordan's Bulls defeated MVP Karl Malone's Jazz
Miami vs. Oklahoma City
Game 1: 7 p.m. today at Oklahoma City
No. 2 Heat: 46-20, second in the East No. 2 Thunder: 47-19, second in the West
Player to watch. The stars, Kevin Durant and LeBron James will catch most of the headlines, but this series will come down to the support staff. Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook lead formidable, versatile supporting casts that give each team more scoring, defense and rebounding. Players to keep an eye on who could have a huge effect include Oklahoma City's James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and Miami's Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers. Factoid. The last time the Oklahoma City franchise made the NBA Finals it was called the Seattle SuperSonics, coached by current Nuggets coach George Karl. Bottom line. As is usually the case, this series will come down to who performs in the final minutes of each game. LeBron, Durant, this means you.
The Post's pick: Thunder in seven
Christopher Dempsey: 303-954-1279 or email@example.com