In what promises to be a rivalry for the annals, LeBron James’s and Kevin Durant’s teams face off for the 2012 NBA trophy. As pundits sort the endless factors that could influence the outcome, all predictive roads point to the small forward matchup of the League MVP and his upstart heir apparent.
The two most formidable forwards in the game will present problems for their opponents in all facets of the game.
James, whose team prowess has him leading the Heat in all statistical categories, has all eyes on him. He will be responsible for guarding the cagey, smooth young gun Durant, and will presumably shoulder the load for his team on offense, looking to involve shooters and slashers (like Dwayne Wade and Mike Miller) from early on.
Durant is a similar threat to score and to collapse the Miami defense, who will surely look to stunt his attempts and the opportunities he creates for willing and capable teammate, Russell Westbrook.
But the real reason for the copious media attention is the mirror effect of each titan’s game on the other. Last summer, the two stars prepared for the 2012 season in James’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, in anticipation of just such a bout.
Specifically, here are the four ways the James/Durant matchup will turn the series in either player’s favor:
1. Post Defense – Favorite: LeBron James
“I’m glad he has that challenge because it’s going to make him focus more,” Wade said. “It’s going to make him play a little different. I’d rather for him to be guarding Kevin Durant than to have to guard DeShawn Stevenson like last year, where he wasn’t as involved. And also Shawn Marion, he wasn’t as involved. Kevin Durant, you’ve got have your antennas up at all times. I think it’s going to bring out the best in both of them.” -Dwyane Wade (Palm Beach Post Blog)
James’s best-friend-for-life has an intriguing and forceful point. LBJ’s notable flaw is his lack of mental focus during key stretches. Having to guard to Durant may implore him to pay closer attention to the value of each play, and motivate him to win the battle where his strengths lie. Although Durant’s stretchy wingspan may bother LeBron’s shooting, it’s hard to imagine the Thunder forward’s lithe body having any effect on James’s newly developed, brusque low-post game. And unlike previous series, both men will have to guard the other in end-game scenarios, which favors LeBron James’s versatility and experience shutting down elite perimeter operators.
2. Free Throw Shooting – Favorite: Kevin Durant
LeBron James attempted 502 free throws in 2012; Durant attempted 501. Clearly, both players get to the stripe at will. But it’s Durant’s historic efficiency, shooting a fiery 88% from the line, that will make him nearly unstoppable. If KD doesn’t settle for long-range shots, pressures James on multiple takes, the MVP may wear down early. Conversely, if LeBron has the will to get to the line, but not the technique and focus to make his baskets there, he will eliminate himself as an option at the close.
3. 4th Quarter Production – Favorite: Kevin Durant
Although James’s name has been dragged endlessly through the muck, 82games.com and hoopdata.com report that he’s one of the most prolific 4th Quarter scorers in the NBA. He produces both for his own chubby stats and his running mates by dishing assist after assist. Despite that reality, there is an unusual emphasis on the shot-for-shot duel that tends to decide many close NBA playoff contests. And in this area, Durant is simply transcendent. He’s made 37 of 42 FTs with the game in the balance, and shot a good percentage on his jumpers. James has been a powerful force to reckon with in the 4th, but has missed more free throws and shoots a slightly lower percentage from the perimeter. There’s also this, from Durant, a virtual highlight reel of game-winners from this year.
4. Pressure to Win It All – Favorite: LeBron James
He’s heard every critic from Skip Bayless to Kobe Bryant heckle him for not winning the ultimate prize, and (sometimes) playing passively when the game was yet undecided. But James does not believe in the rumors, accusations, or evaluations of the chattering public. If he did, he wouldn’t have the steel to issue a 45-point-15-rebound-5-assist I-told-you-so game in response. Seemingly eroded by the last two failures, the Chosen One has all but silenced doubts about his mental constitution with a playoff run quite unlike any in history. He’s currently averaging 31 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, which has only been done by one NBA player in history through a playoff run, Oscar Robertson in ’62. (And The Big O ain’t win a chip til 9 years later because of an inferior squad.) LeBron has the team and the experience to bring these exceptional accomplishments to the mountaintop.
But the question remains, as ever, will he complete the mission?
Tune to ABC at 9p ET for coverage of the NBA Finals.