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Criticized last season for deferring too often in crucial situations, James went into the offseason driven by the pain of failing in the NBA finals. And 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 Akron for a few days for some 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.

And look at them now, two superstars set 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.”

They both understood the other perfectly.

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. This probably couldn’t have been scripted any better. Maybe the two best players in the world, scarred by similar disappointment, trying to make the other better.

And when the final series of the season begins Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, they’ll each 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, both 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 that balloting. And in these finals, one will finish first again, the other will finish second again.

“It’s not about Kevin and LeBron,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “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’s probably little argument that James and Durant have been the premier players in this postseason. James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while Durant is at 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists. But while Durant is celebrated for what he’s doing as a 23-year-old on the rise in a small market, James gets the constant reminder of how he’s a 27-year-old without a championship despite moving to Miami.

LeBron James, I just have a feeling a lot of people are just waiting to pin failure on him versus objectively evaluating his game,” ESPN 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. I don’t understand what people don’t like about him.”

It seems no matter what James does or how well he plays, some can’t get past The Decision — that infamous televised special where he announced he was signing with Miami in 2010. If he passes, he should have shot. If he shoots, he is being selfish. If he puts up 45 points and 15 rebounds, like in Game 6 of the East finals, some ask why he doesn’t do that every night. If the Heat win, the reminders come that they didn’t win it all last season.

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