OAKLAND, Calif. — Here on the same floor, but on the opposite end from where he swatted Andre Iguodala’s layup last summer in what was perhaps the signature defensive play in NBA Finals history, LeBron James caused another loud reaction in Oracle Arena.
But this time, instead of racing down the floor for a block, LeBron found himself on the floor, after being twisted like a half-truth by Kevin Durant on a pump fake. The Warriors’ bench instantly rose together as if a judge had entered the courtroom, screaming, gesturing, encouraging Durant to finish him off. Which Durant did; after a few dribbles, he tomahawked the ball through the rim for one of his six dunks in Game 1, leaving LeBron dazed and certainly confused in his wake.
The first round of the 2017 Finals went to the Warriors, but a tasty subplot is emerging. Not only are Durant and LeBron in the same series, but they’re guarding each other, giving the Finals a rare treat that should be entertaining and perhaps determine which team will splash champagne when it’s over.
Plenty of All-Stars and even MVPs have competed for titles but few have actually squared up. Not since 1983 when Moses Malone went goggles-to-goggles with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have MVP winners been exclusively assigned to each other in the Finals (In 1991, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan battled at times. Durant and LeBron did meet in 2012 but Durant hadn’t won the award yet). It creates high level play and intense scrutiny, with reputations and pride on the line, which is certainly the case with Durant v. LeBron.
What happens when two stars, who are nearly impossible to guard one-on-one, find themselves one-on-one against each other? What gives when a 27.2 career scorer (Durant) meets a 27.1 (LeBron)? And how much energy is saved for the other basket when such player must generate scoring chances?
That last question looms bigger in the case of LeBron, given his all-around importance to the Cavs. He not only must score himself, but create for teammates. In Game 1, this was clearly an issue; other than Kyrie Irving, the Cavs had little power, forcing LeBron to burn the candle furiously on both ends. It was an advantage that the Warriors happily exploited and could force the Cavs to rethink things and give LeBron something on defense that he never asked for before: help.
It’s rare when a high-volume scorer must also guard the other team’s best player. Usually, a substitution is made, such as with the Warriors, where Steph Curry checks the lesser of the opposing team’s guards, leaving Klay Thompson for the big scorer. In Oklahoma City, Andre Roberson does the dirty work instead of Russell Westbrook, and elsewhere, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas and others find someone else to do the heavy lifting defensively.
In this case, there’s no hiding. LeBron and Durant have each other, for much of the game, for better or for worse.
“When those two are guarding each other, they’re two of the best in the world, they’re going to pose problems for each other,” said Ron Adams, the Warriors’ assistant coach and defensive strategist. “I think anything LeBron does will be tough for Kevin and vice versa. It runs both ways on that matchup.”
It ran mostly one way when the series opened, with Durant dropped 38 points in an easy win. He mostly did so from high-efficiency spots on the floor; it’s not often a player gets 38 despite making just three shots from deep. A few defensive breakdowns caused Durant to get uncontested dunks. Other times, he simply isolated on LeBron and slithered his way to mid-range jumpers or finger rolls.
The only prolific scorer LeBron guarded in the 2017 playoffs until now was Paul George, and George averaged 33 in three of those four first-round games. LeBron didn’t have to burn much precious energy against DeMarre Carroll or Jae Crowder in the next two series, and now, his hands are full.
“KD is the difference with that team,” LeBron said.
Durant gives LeBron trouble by bringing the usual weapons: size, length, high release point on the shot, decent handles for a tall man, range and ability to post up. In essence, LeBron must prepare for anything. Given that high-scoring small forwards are in short supply, LeBron, like others, haven’t seen many like Durant all season.
“He might go down as one of greatest scorers of all time,” said Iguodala. “Kareem and Michael Jordan are the other only two people who had moves you had to live and die with. Kevin’s right there with those guys, a seven-footer with two-guard’s skills, can score on the blocks, handle the ball, hit from perimeter. Tough.”
Of course, LeBron’s defensive mindset is strong and he brings the physical ability to back it up.
“There is no basketball skill that LeBron, when he applies himself on that particular skill, that he’s isn’t really, really, really good at,” said Adams. “When he’s into his defense, he’s tough. Remember, he’s got a body, a combo of speed, power, quickness, strength. That’s a package, and one we haven’t seen in this league.”
Durant also has a rare defensive gift: A 7-foot-5 wingspan that can hassle even the most disciplined scorers, as it did in Game 1 when LeBron delivered five of his eight turnovers. That wingspan makes Durant a valuable interior defender who can even block shots from behind when he’s beaten to the rim and comes in handy when playing a physical forward such as LeBron.
“LeBron is obviously a very good 3-point shooter, so we wanted KD to make him try to drive at times,” said Warriors acting coach Mike Brown. “We wanted KD to try to use his length at the rim and see if (LeBron) can score over top of him.”
However: LeBron is averaging 32 points on 55 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3-point range. His performance level in the 2017 playoffs is arguably his best ever all-around. After uncharacteristically scoring 11 points against the Celtics two weeks ago, LeBron returned with 34 points the next game in an easy win. And now, LeBron is coming off a sloppy game, by his standards. Durant knows what he’s up against Sunday for Game 2.
“I mean, he’s LeBron James,” said Durant.
In some respects, this matchup between Durant and LeBron brings a nostalgic aroma. The championship series in the ‘80s were particularly starry, with loaded teams from Boston, Philly and LA making regular trips to the Finals. While the floor was loaded with future Hall of Famers, most didn’t directly guard each other, and the Abdul-Jabbar vs. Malone matchup was the exception. Magic didn’t spend most of the game against Jordan in their 1991 series, and Clyde Drexler, while an All-Star multiple times, brought no MVPs to his clash against Jordan the next year.
LeBron has appeared in the Finals seven previous times and the only first-team All-NBA player he guarded was Durant in 2012. Kawhi Leonard, who made a name for himself against LeBron in 2014 by excelling on both ends and helping the Spurs win, was just getting started as a star. That’s why this matchup with a wiser and improved Durant is LeBron’s toughest by far, and one that’s made in Neilsen heaven.
Durant spoke how he was “locked in” for Game 1 and that’s understandable. His urgency to win a championship might be greater than LeBron’s if only because Durant is ring-less and he left OKC last summer to enhance his odds of getting one.
While Durant insists there’s no revenge factor in play from the 2012 Finals, he says losing to LeBron made him a better player.
“Our games have grown,” he said. “He’s been in the Finals every year since then, and I’ve played a lot of games since then. So, I just tried to use that experience to help me out today, and I’m sure he did the same.”
Five years later, the NBA Finals are being showcased by two former MVPs whose games and approaches are more mature and, hard to believe, much bolder. This is a one-on-one that could decide the team winner. Therefore, it’s accurate to say LeBron James and Kevin Durant are staring directly at each other, although that’s tricky to do when one eye is also on the trophy.
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