LeBron, KD to go toe to toe in NBA title fight
JUN 10, 2012 5:52p ET
In the bittersweet science, one combatant in the showdown everyone wants to see is in jail. The other was just robbed.
But in professional basketball, hungry followers — with no rooting interest in teams vanquished in the playoff-elimination process — will be served what most of us ordered back in December.
Starting Tuesday night, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder will be on the table.
And the most compelling matchup within this harmonic convergence of outrageous hoops ability is . . . drum roll . . . Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant vs. Miami's three-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James.
For the first time since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls dumped Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in 1998, the NBA Finals will serve as a playground for the season's top two finishers in the MVP race.
What enables this year's superstar intersection to seem, at the least, more provocative than MJ vs. The Mailman is on-court geography. When roll is called, the 23-year-old KD and MVP LeBron both answer at the small forward position.
For professional insight regarding the caliber of haymakers we'll be seeing, let's surrender the floor to a scout employed by a Western Conference team.
"It really is intriguing," our expert said in regard to watching Durant vs. James. "It'll be interesting to see how they match up."
Oh, yeah . . . that. Anyone paying attention for the last couple of months realizes the Heat and Thunder are versatile teams capable of manipulating their lineups to gain an advantage. Miami, for example (and especially while Chris Bosh was out), often works with several players the same size. This allows coach Eric Spoelstra, if he chooses, to assign James, 27, to guard a point guard ( Rajon Rondo) or a power forward ( David West) while crusty Shane Battier tracks the opposing three man.
Out in OKC, coach Scott Brooks can live large with two legit post players or opt for small ball with the 6-foot-9 Durant playing a hybrid power forward. Brooks can do this because 6-7 stopper Thabo Sefolosha is capable of guarding point guards ( Tony Parker) or anyone else roaming the perimeter.
So, in our scout's way of thinking, we should expect OKC to open with Durant on James but use Sefolosha for big portions of the series.
"I think that's the way it'll go," our scout said. "It's the logical way. You're not fatiguing (Durant) for offense. And if he has to guard (Heat power forward Udonis) Haslem, well, he's stronger than Durant but doesn't play in the post very much. Toward the end of the game, you might see Durant go back to LeBron and use his length to challenge shots late in the game. I do think (Brooks) has confidence in that matchup at the end of games."
It also should be noted that James figures to spend a great deal of time guarding Durant, who led the NBA in scoring during the regular season. LeBron has had the responsibility of checking the opposition's go-to guy through three playoff series, so we shouldn't expect a change now. His success in this task will be looked at more closely when we go to a categorical investigation of the showdown.
Our scout admits he's partial to the overall qualities of James.
"But it's close," he said. "They're both great, great players. I've always been a LeBron guy in this comparison, but I'm not saying I'm right."
For a closer inspection of KD vs. LeBron, we've enlisted the services of an assistant coach who chews the Xs and Os for an Eastern Conference team.
"Obviously, you prefer making either one take a 3," the coach said, "and you get a hand up and hope for the best. They both can hurt you worse inside the arc. By the numbers, Durant is a greater threat outside the arc and is really good at setting up that shot off the bounce."
During the 2012 playoffs, Durant — who's giving OKC 27.8 points per game — has made 36 percent of his 3-point attempts. James, who dedicated part of this season to squeezing off fewer deep rounds, checks in at just under 28 percent during the postseason.
It should be noted that, according to the numbers at hoopdata.com, Durant also is the more accurate shooter (47 percent vs. 39 percent) between 16 and 23 feet.
"When Durant turns over his left shoulder for that little jump hook or a simple turnaround," the coach said, "he's not bad on the block. That said, LeBron's strength, explosion and ability to pass out of the double team make him more effective on the post.
"Especially this season, LeBron is a lot more committed to going to the post, too. Durant sometimes seems reluctant to go down there and use his length. Like most players, they both are better when getting to the post off of movement, some sort of cross-screen or misdirection that prevents the defender from digging in and makes it harder to send a second defender."
And the caveat?
"Because of free-throw shooting," the coach said, "James can be less inclined to go down there late in games. That's not a problem for Durant."
"They both are very committed in this aspect of the game," the coach said.
Durant has provided the Thunder with 8 rebounds per game during the playoffs. James checks in at 9.6 for Miami.
"Based on strength, I'd go with LeBron to get you the big rebound at the big moment," the coach said. "But Durant is good there, too."
"Based on the attention they both get from defenses, the assists are going to be there," the coach said.
Over three playoff rounds, KD has posted 4.2 dimes per game. LeBron has handed out 5.1 per game.
"Along with Larry Bird, you have to go with LeBron as the best passer we've seen at the three spot," the coach said. "Durant is good and getting better. With his length and court awareness, the pass is becoming more and more of a weapon for him.
"And don't forget, James is a beast off the dribble, forcing defenders to collapse and finding open teammates. Durant can do that, too, but he's not nearly strong enough to be as good in a crowd."
"Durant is taking great pride at that end of the floor now," the coach said, "and has gone from sort of adequate to pretty decent. He had Kobe (Bryant) down the stretch a couple of times in the playoffs, and his length forced Kobe into some bad shots. But, to be honest, I think Kobe was gettin' gassed a little bit and settled for jumpers instead of attacking the rim.
"On the flip side, LeBron — with his strength, lateral quickness, elevation, recovery speed and so on — is an elite defender."
Although he didn't guard the following opponents during the entire stretch of each series, James did most of the defensive duty against the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, the Pacers' Danny Granger and the Celtics' Paul Pierce.
Their respective field-goal percentages against the Heat were, 42, 38 and 34.
Any lineup that includes Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is pretty formidable and difficult to match. But LeBron's Big Three cronies aren't quite at full strength right now, and Durant's hardly lacking for co-star power in Oklahoma City.
Although the scoring salvos of point guard Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden can push KD out of offensive rhythm, the Thunder finished the season near the top of the league in offensive efficiency.
Durant also has a shot blocker with some offensive chops in Serge Ibaka, a low-post defensive rock (not that one is needed against Miami) in Kendrick Perkins, Sefolosha, cagey post sub Nick Collison and championship veteran Derek Fisher.
Battier, point guard Mario Chalmers and Haslem have had huge moments for Miami, but the other rotation players have been inconsistent.
"The supporting-cast issue is trickier than it may seem and is subject to health issues," the coach said. "It's very close, but I'll go with OKC."
Let's cut to the chase. By "intangibles," we're talking about which superstar is the best bet to come through with the game on the line.
In LeBron, the sporting nation has identified its most wildly criticized closer since Mitch Williams was employed by the Philadelphia Phillies.
"He's one of the greatest players the league has ever had," the coach said of James. "But while it seems absurd to question his greatness, most people around the league want to see what happens in the last couple of minutes in this series if the games are close.
"LeBron has been sensational this postseason and was crazy good against Boston. But he looked unbeatable against Chicago in the conference finals last season and laid an egg against Dallas in the Finals. Then, going back to his last series with Cleveland two years ago, he looked like he was in a coma at odd times."
The hoops-dedicated website 82games.com offers "clutch" stats that are culled from numbers accumulated during the last five minutes and overtime of games in which teams are separated on the scoreboard by five or fewer points.
Through the regular season, Durant was second in overall scoring at 50.8 points (41 percent shooting) per 48 clutch minutes. James was 17th at 33.2 points (38 percent). In the latest update available, Durant was third (45.7 points, 39 percent), while James was fifth (40 points, 45 percent).
In the latter listing, Durant's clutch-time free-throw percentage was 88. James’ was 71.
"I do think the free-throw thing is something to watch late in games," the coach said. "For now, with one shot to beat me at the end of a game, I know which one of these two guys I don't want to see with the ball."
The final score: James 4, Durant 3.