The sport’s best players, playing on the sport’s biggest stage, playing for the sport’s most sacred trophy. This is the way the NBA Finals are meant to be, two great teams led by two transcendent superstars trying to cement their place as the sport’s Washington on basketball’s Mount Rushmore.
We could see this matchup between the Thunder and Heat and Kevin Durant and LeBron James coming for years, since 2007 when the former’s meteoric rise made him the first freshman to be named college basketball’s consensus player of the year. So over the last half decade as the Lakers and Celtics had hold of the Finals, Durant and the Thunder grew from upstart to title contender, and James’ public reputation was tarnished with his move to Miami we’ve been patiently waiting for today. And it’s finally, finally here, with both superstars at the absolute apex of their powers.
This series is far more layered than Durant vs. James, obviously, as each is flanked by two legitimate All-Stars, surrounded by a breadth of inconsistent role players, and guided by coaches among the NBA’s most unfairly maligned. But history will remember it the superficial way, as the first battle between two players that will forever be remembered among basketball’s legends by the time their careers are over. And while that will bother those who view the sport as the ultimate team game it is, even they can’t be upset the way the narrative has developed throughout the playoffs to pit these two against one another at the end when it all matters most. This, it bears repeating, is how the finals are meant to be.
Now that the stage is set with proper dramatics, how do Durant and James matchup? Let’s dive in.
There may not be a tougher cover or more gifted scorer in the world than Durant, but you know that by now. Incredible length combined with quickness, speed, underrated handle and unmatched shot-making ability are his hallmarks, unmistakable from any other player in the NBA, active or long since retired. If there’s any player that has the physical gifts and mental aptitude to keep Durant in relative check, though, it’s James. He’s not just the league’s most positionally versatile defender, he’s also its best against elite wing scorers. James does fantastic work defensively both on and off the ball, rarely getting beat off the dribble and routinely forcing his man away from the scorer’s preferred spots on the floor. Against Durant the latter will come in especially handy, as James can easily bully Durant into catching the ball in the places he’s least comfortable. KD’s overall strength is better than it’s ever been, yes, but still is a far cry from that of James. So if James is able to move Durant off the pinch-post and top of the key and make him catch the ball farther away from the basket, he’s already scored a relative victory but hardly won the battle. Against most scorers that may be enough, but not Durant; he’s simply too good. Even far away from the basket, Durant is still an incredibly tough cover because of his vastly improved penetrating skill and unparalleled range and release point. Even James – 6’8” or a half inch taller with long arms, quick feet, and broad shoulders – must toe the line between playing close enough to challenge Durant’s jumper and far enough back to make sure he doesn’t get beat to the rim, all while keeping his head on a swivel awaiting ball screens from a myriad of options on either side of him. A tough cover, indeed, but if any player in the sport is up for the challenge it’s James.
Durant won’t guard James as much as LeBron does he on the other end, but he’ll see the lion’s share of minutes on the MVP nonetheless. James, for all his warts, was arguably the most effective offensive player in basketball this season, refining his post-game, tightening his jumper, and improving his shot-selection to points he’s never approached before. And all that’s before mentioning what sets him apart from most other elite scorers, his ability to run his team’s offense and get teammates open looks. Of particular interest when Durant draws James is how often Miami will try to exploit LeBron’s size and strength advantage in the post, where he’s among the league’s most efficient scorers. Will Durant be able to push James from spots the way it will go on the other side? Probably not, which means Oklahoma City will aggressively double team when James puts down one or two dribbles, opening seams for a cutter like Dwyane Wade or skip passes for open shooters. Erik Spoelstra will likely try to establish James down low early to see how the Thunder defense reacts, but that too will be exactly what Scott Brooks tries to prevent. So that begs the questions, if James doesn’t get many post touches, what kind of shots will he be taking? This is where the Thunder’s team defense and James’ supreme court vision are especially huge. Serge Ibaka is the game’s best shot-blocker, Kendrick Perkins is a bull near the rim, and the Thunder’s perimeter players are quick and long enough to bother James if he gets past Durant’s initial defense off the dribble. OKC will no doubt disallow James the path of least resistance, instead collapsing and forcing him to pass to the weakside or near corner. That’s not a bad thing for Miami if Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Chris Bosh are hitting shots; if not, they might be in big trouble.
Neither Durant nor James will be constantly guarded by the other, and when they aren’t the Thunder in particular should feast. Battier will no doubt see several possessions a game assigned to Durant, and the veteran just doesn’t have the requisite length, speed, or quickness to give Durant much trouble. Should Miami go this route expect them to more aggressively double the ball, giving Durant the opportunity to show off his improved passing skill. Miami, on the other hand, won’t see the same advantage when OKC uses someone to cover James other than Durant. The task in that scenario falls to Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s best perimeter defender and one some would say is as good a matchup for James as Durant. While that’s not necessarily true, he still has the physical gifts and aggressive mentality to make life hard for LeBron.
This series will come down to more than Durant and James. We know that. But what’s obvious, too, is that the league’s coming tone and direction will be set by who gets the best of the other in terms of success both team and individual. The Finals should be bigger and mean more. These do, and it’s because of Durant and James, just the way we wanted and just the way it should be.