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James' title pursuit adds drama to final

Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Heat drew the best cable ratings of any NBA playoff game since they began keeping records nine years ago. The three top-rated cable games came during that series.

This does not come as a surprise. LeBron James has become must-see TV for sports fans. Love him or hate him, he's impossible to ignore. Ever since James decided to leave Cleveland for Miami, and to announce it during a self-aggrandizing, one-hour special on ESPN, he has become the most reviled athlete in sports.

So I imagine the NBA suits were rooting for Miami. No offense to the Celtics, a brave but geriatric bunch, but James is the story. Rooting against him is a sport all its own among a large slice of the public. I thought it might have subsided by now. It hasn't.

Tonight in Oklahoma City, James will begin the third NBA Finals of his nine-year career. He is still looking for his first title. I wonder if the league's power brokers might be secretly rooting against him now.

Since the infamous Decision, James' pursuit of a first title has been the most compelling story in the league. When he wilted in the critical moments of a six-game loss to the Mavericks last June, it extended the drama for another season. Resolution saps the drama from any soap opera. Until Miami wins it all, LeBron remains the flawed protagonist.

If the Heat lose again, there could be major repercussions. Erik Spoelstra could be fired as coach. Pat Riley might shake up the roster. There's talk of Dwyane Wade being traded. Maybe Riley will make a return as coach.

James is only 27, younger than Michael Jordan was when he won the first of his six titles. There's time for him to win it all. I hope people can channel the hate and enjoy what promises to be a great final. It pits James, the best player in the game, against Kevin Durant, a rising superstar who proved in the West final that he deserves a place among the game's top clutch players.

The Thunder are a joy to watch, a quick and relentless squad, reminsicent of a time when teams scored 100 points as a routine matter and went on runs that left opponents and observers gasping for breath.

The question is whether the Heat can slow down an Okie City team that won four straight against the Spurs, who had won 20 straight games. In a week, a Spurs team that was being compared with great champs of the past was left dazed and bewildered.

People were stunned by the turnaround. I was among them. I thought the Spurs were the team to beat. The Thunder took them out in a merciless display. It's still fresh in my mind. I can't pick against a team that made Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich look like yesterday's news.

The Celtics were too slow and old to beat the Heat. Rajon Rondo kept them in the series. Boston had to work too hard for open shots. Aside from Rondo, it didn't have the athletes to hang with Miami in the crucial moments.

Oklahoma City has more options in the post. Boston had Kevin Garnett and little else. The Thunder has a trio of 6-foot-10 guys (Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison) to lean on Miami's bigs and challenge shots. Ibaka is the league's top shot-blocker. He also averaged 13.4 points against the Spurs.

Miami's Chris Bosh is 6-10, but he plays like a small forward. He's a finesse player who can change games when he's making outside shots. But he can be exposed in a half-court game. Bosh is also coming off an abdominal injury.

The Thunder have an advantage at point guard. Russell Westbrook is erratic, but he's a matchup nightmare. Remember, J.J. Barea gave the Heat fits with his penetrations off the bench for Dallas. Westbrook will do it all game long. Like Rondo, he can break down defenses and create for his teammates. The Thunder won't always settle for jumpers, either.

James must be at his best. In retrospect, his showing in the 2011 final is even more puzzling. James suffered a nine-point scoring drop from the regular season, the worst in Finals history. He was 12 for 20 from the foul line in the six games. He was 12 for 17 in Game Seven alone against Boston.

So James has been a different player in this postseason. His scoring average has risen with every series. He averaged 33.6 points against the Celtics and played almost every minute. It was a performance worthy of a league MVP.

Durant has been consistently brilliant, averaging 29.5 points in the playoffs. He shot 55 percent in the four victories over the Spurs. He's also a career 88 percent foul shooter, which could become vital at the end of close games. James has been erratic at the line.

Oklahoma City is quicker than Boston at recovering to close out shooters. James won't get as many open looks, for himself or his teammates. He's not a great pure shooter and will struggle to shoot close to 50 percent over the series.

James won't shrink from the big moments. But the Thunder are deeper and better. They won the first round in four, the second round in five, the conference final in six. Looks like a pattern. Thunder in seven.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com