HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The season is only 55 percent complete, so it’s way too early to make any kind of call in the MVP race. By leading the Oklahoma City Thunder on an eight-game winning streak without co-star Russell Westbrook and going on a ridiculous scoring binge along the way, Kevin Durant has seemingly taken the lead over LeBron James.
But this is the time of year when James led the Miami Heat to 27 straight wins last season, a streak that included a win in Oklahoma City. Head-to-head matchups could linger in the minds of voters, and the Heat have won six straight games against the Thunder, going back to Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. They’ll look to make it seven in a row on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Miami, and will have another meeting right after the All-Star break.
Because Durant and James (mostly) play the same position, they truly are going head to head, though one typically defends the other more than vice versa.
In their two meetings last season, James defended Durant on 67 percent of Oklahoma City’s possessions when two were on the floor together. The only time he wasn’t Durant’s primary defender was in the third quarter of the Feb. 14 meeting, a game which the Heat led by 17 at halftime. Dwyane Wade took on Durant duties for most those 12 minutes.
Durant, meanwhile, only defended James on only 44 percent of Miami’s possessions when the two were on the floor together. Thabo Sefolosha was tasked with defending James most of the other possessions, though it was Russell Westbrook‘s job in the fourth quarter of that February game.
Durant and James were their team’s best defenders on their opponent’s best players. Both scored more efficiently when being guarded by other defenders.
Over the two games, when James was guarding him, Durant scored 0.95 (35/37) points per scoring chance (shot from the field or trip to the line). When James wasn’t guarding him, Durant scored 1.48 points per scoring chance (37/25).
When Durant was guarding him, James scored just 0.88 (15/17) points per scoring chance. When Durant wasn’t guarding him, James scored 1.71 (53/31).
Part of the discrepancy is transition opportunities when nobody was really defending them. But it’s clear that each was the other’s toughest matchup.
Nothing easy one-on-one
James is seen as the better defender, but Durant is so darn long. Though they totaled 140 points in the two games, neither guy could get anything easy against the other.
Here’s Durant in an iso against James, hitting a really tough shot.
And here’s a James post-up, where Durant contests a 16-foot, step-back jumper…
Easier against the other guys
In Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have another defender with the size and quickness to make things tough on James. But Ibaka only defending James on a couple of switches or transition matchups last season. Shane Battier has typically defended Durant when James has been off the floor, but doesn’t have James’ size and strength.
Wade and Sefolosha really can’t handle the job.
Here’s Durant going right around Wade for an and-one on an iso…
And here’s James muscling through Sefolosha on a weak-side duck-in.
Getting the ball out of KD’s hands
While James defended Durant more than Durant defended James, he would have more help from possession to possession. When Durant runs a high pick-and-roll or comes off a pin-down screen to catch the ball on the wing, the Heat will blitz a second defender at him to force the ball out of his hands.
Here’s one such play from the Christmas game last season, where Durant takes a handoff from Kendrick Perkins and immediately gets double-teamed, forcing him to give up the ball…
Here’s a link to the Thunder’s second possession of the Feb. 14 meeting, where two defenders chase Durant as he comes off a pin-down.
Durant on the move
So that Durant doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with James or face double-teams so much, the Thunder can get him the ball on the move. Here, they use him as a screener and he gets an open shot off a flare to the right wing…
When Durant is used as a screener, his defender has a difficult decision to make. If he leaves Durant (like above), he’s giving the league’s leading scorer an open shot. But if he stays at home on Durant, the ball-handler has an opening.
The Heat can use James in a similar fashion. On this play, Chalmers gets an opening, because Westbrook stays attached to James…
Forcing the switch
The Heat also use James as a screener to get him matched up with a smaller defender. Here, he gets Westbrook in the post, draws the attention of Perkins, and finds Chris Bosh for an easy dunk late in the Christmas game…
A lot more than just one-on-one
Wednesday is a matchup of the two best basketball players in the world and will make some kind of impact on MVP voting. But how Durant and James play goes well beyond their defense on each other. It’s also about how their coaches and teammates set up their touches, how they take advantage of other matchups and how much help their defenders get from their teammates.