It isn’t every day NBA fans get to watch two transcendent talents go head-to-head at the peak of their powers. On the rare occasion that it does happen, each and every tiny morsel created during the showdown it should be dissected and broken down into its fundamental elements until there is simply nothing left to analyze.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
The matchup we all tuned in to see exceeded our expectations for a magical stretch at the end of the third quarter. As Kevin Durant and LeBron James traded jumpers, we all but ignored their defensive efforts and cheered for an event that would surpass the importance of the game itself. The truth is, though, that Durant and LeBron actually guarded each other for much of the game, and despite the amazing memory they gave us, there was a lot more to this showdown. Although they finished with almost identical stat lines in the game, the head-to-head matchup wasn’t quite that even. As expertly detailed by Royce Young of Daily Thunder prior to the game, Kevin Durant has developed into one of the better isolation defenders in the league, though he isn’t perceived as one yet (despite the numerical evidence backing it up). Will this game against LeBron start spreading that school of thought? Every possession in which LeBron or Durant guarded each other directly and that ended in a shot, assist, foul or turnover for either player is shown in the video below. Included absolutely free of charge is a handy head-to-head points counter in the bottom right corner:
Just looking at the numbers would tell you that Kevin Durant decimated LeBron James in the matchup, as he outscored him 20 to 6, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Kevin Durant went a long stretch in the middle of the game where he didn’t guard LeBron because of foul trouble, so the number of opportunities weren’t equal.
That said, there are some seriously impressive things to take away from Durant’s defensive performance. For starters, the only assist LeBron had while Durant was guarding him was on the first Heat possession of the game (when Kendrick Perkins was still chasing Chris Bosh around), and he finished with only three assists total. LeBron only scored on one of the post isolations the Heat set up for him (he drew a foul and hit the free throws), and he didn’t acquire an assist out of the post in the entire game. This is a vital part of the Heat offense, and Durant helped to take it away. It would seem like Durant’s length is a major factor in bothering LeBron, and he didn’t get taken advantage of down in the post as so many would expect him to. Overall, Durant’s defensive performance on LeBron was as good as could be expected, if not a whole lot more.
On the other side of the ball, Durant simply eviscerated James. There is no way around it. LeBron James has a reputation for being able to guard players who have good handles and are quick off the dribble, but he didn’t show much of that in this game. Durant had LeBron on skates a couple of times, and was able to create space at will. Most of the missed jumpers Durant had in the game were after he had created plenty of space, meaning LeBron’s hand often wasn’t right in his face (especially late in the game). It was almost like LeBron looked slow out there, which is just a weird thing to realize, because you just don’t see it often. The final (unofficial) head-to-head lines were tallied as follows:
Kevin Durant: 20 points on 8-16 shooting, 1-1 free throws, 5 assists, 2 turnovers, 2 personal fouls
LeBron James: 6 points on 1-6 shooting, 4-4 free throws, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 0 personal fouls
Notes: The free throw was from a personal foul on Shane Battier after Durant drove by LeBron. One of LeBron’s turnovers was a backcourt violation, which is officially recorded as a team turnover.
Kevin Durant vs. Miami’s Blitzing Double Teams
The root of Miami’s fantastic defense is the way they swarm the opposing ball handler in pick and rolls. Instead of switching, or having their big man protect the lane, they double team the ball handler and force difficult passes with their length and athleticism. When it works, it forces turnovers and disrupts entire offensive schemes. The key is Chris Bosh, and his incredible ability to blitz and recover, something most big men would have trouble with.
But Kevin Durant doesn’t care about any of that. Kevin Durant is taller and longer than everyone else, so Kevin Durant just laughs in the face of Miami’s blitzing scheme. Durant used his height throughout the game to simply toss the ball right over Miami’s typically constraining double teams, essentially rendering the scheme irrelevant. When his teammates hit open shots, it even makes the defense a welcome sight for the Thunder, as they are all but guaranteed to have somebody wide open most of the time. The video below shows a few of these scenarios, and it becomes apparent very quickly just how little this bothers Durant:
Durant has shown a vastly improved passing ability in recent years, which has gotten even better in the recent weeks since Russell Westbrook went down, and he really showed it off against the Heat. Some of those cross court passes could be best be described as LeBron-esque. Seriously. It wasn’t just LeBron that Kevin Durant was able to pick apart in this game. It was Miami’s entire defense.
And Durant wasn’t the only one fighting through this scheme as the ball handler. Reggie Jackson was successful quite a few time when he tried to use his quickness to get around the doubles, and he was able to set up teammates – or at least reset the offense – after breaking free. He did get caught a few times, but Scott Brooks stepped in with some opportune timeouts. Plus he sat Kendrick Perkins for the second half. So yeah, Scott Brooks had a good game too.
LeBron James vs. Other Thunder Defenders
This is really where LeBron James was able make his way towards his impressive final scoring output of 34 points. Although Durant did a fantastic job on him, James was actually able to get Durant into foul trouble in the first half (one of the fouls was offensive, but a personal foul nonetheless). With Durant being so vital to the Thunder offense, Scott Brooks had no choice but to try out other players on LeBron, and they found varying degrees of success, though none of them were Durant-ian. First up was Thabo Sefolosha, who pretty much got manhandled by LeBron in the way that most thought KD would be. Scott Brooks countered with Perry Jones in the second half, who actually started it in the place of Kendrick Perkins, the true miracle on this special night in Oklahoma City Thunder basketball history. A couple of other payers got caught guarding LeBron on switches, and Serge Ibaka got straight up steamrolled once when Perry Jones fell asleep on a backdoor cut:
He is just so strong. Watching this video should make Kevin Durant’s performance detailed above even more impressive. Time after time, LeBron was able to get to the basket, or just get into perfect post position, using pure power. It was pretty terrifying. THABO LOST A SHOE! HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN? AND SERGE IBAKA ALMOST DIED…ON A LAYUP!!
Anyway, Perry Jones III performance should be the most exciting for Thunder fans. He did the best job of staying in front of LeBron and forcing him into relatively tough shots. LeBron was still able to draw some fouls and hit some really difficult jumpers, but this breakthrough could be a huge development should the Thunder face the Heat in the Finals (or even for their upcoming rematch on February 20th). It also gave Scott Brooks more reason to play Jones over Perkins, which may be the most important factor in all of this. The Thunder need to give Kevin Durant defensive relief in these games. Part of guarding LeBron James is picking up fouls, and having someone to bear the burden for a few minutes at a time could be all the Thunder need to win a championship come June.
Well…that and Russell Westbrook. Let’s not forget they’ve been destroying the competition without their second best player, who should make the Thunder something close to an unstoppable force upon his return.