James, Heat find their way back to NBA finals

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MIAMI (AP) - Several weeks before this season even started, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were competing against each other.

Hell Week, they called it, a four-day series of grueling workouts.

Starting Tuesday, they’ll meet again. They’ll call that the NBA finals.

Neither was playing at the level they are now when James invited Durant to work out with him during the NBA lockout in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Now as James tries to win his first ring, fittingly, it’s Durant in his way.

“It’s only right. It’s only right,” James said. “We look forward to the challenge. It’s going to be a big test for us.”

James played at a rarely seen level in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. According to STATS LLC, James became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000 finals to have six 30-point games in a playoff series. In the one contest where James didn’t score 30, he finished with 29 in Game 4, fouling out in overtime.

His series averages against the Celtics: 33.6 points and 11 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting. He had five games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in the entire regular season _ then did it five times in the series against Boston alone.

“He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s playing at an historic level during the playoffs, driving us with his will. We do not take his talent or his will or his competitiveness for granted. And we need every single bit of it. He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he’s pushing the rest of the team as well.”

Said Heat guard Dwyane Wade: “He’s amazing.”

There were many moments for the Heat to celebrate on Saturday night, when they punched their ticket back to the NBA finals by ousting Boston 101-88 in Game 7.

Heat owner Micky Arison couldn’t have gotten his hands off the East trophy fast enough, since that isn’t the one he wants anyway. James felt the same way. The Heat star left the floor in a cap and T-shirt, one arm raised in joy.

Behind him, the celebration continued. By then, he was already thinking about what’s next.

“I really thought he in particular played a very smart, aggressive game,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He kind of let the game come to him, and then down the stretch he took the game over. That’s what great players do.”

They don’t do it alone, though.

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.

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