It was a noble approach. It certainly gave us the dream matchup, something to snap photos of and bask in the drama of. It was as exciting as it could get. The two best players in basketball, head to head, guarding one another.
LeBron James guarding Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant guarding LeBron James. The Heat eventually elected to do what they most often do, switching up coverage constantly to confuse and harrass their opponent while managing minutes and effort. Shane Battier gets a go, Dwyane Wade some, and James carries more than his fair share. It hasn't worked, but they knew it wouldn't. They're not trying to stop Kevin Durant, because you can't stop Kevin Durant. They're just trying to contain him. You have to live with Kevin Durant's jumpshot. It's unstoppable.
But Durant has consistently gotten looks at James. It's been an admirable attempt by Scott Brooks to give his superstar the challenge of a lifetime, to be truly great, and Durant has taken on the responsibility. He has given a great effort, for a time.
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That time is over.
Kevin Durant cannot guard James for more than a handful of possessions from here on out. If they want to take their chances with Durant on James in the fourth quarter, as the Heat have done guarding Durant with James, that's not a bad idea. James is more likely to shoot the jumper in those situations. That's where Durant can guard James. That's the only place Durant can guard James.
Sixteen of James' 29 points came in the first half, with Durant guarding him. In the second half, the Thunder switched and put Durant on Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. But in the stretch Durant was guarding him, James enjoyed a parade to the line. The devastating jump-step drop hook? Split Durant's defense. The transition and-one that may or may not have been a foul? Durant caught trying to reach on James. The third foul on Durant coming off the screen? Trying to get around defense to keep James in front of him. The offensive putbacks in the first half? James shoving Durant out of the way to score.
All of this is a continuation of what we saw in Game 2.
Durant can't body him. He just doesn't have the size. He can contest the jumper, but if James is taking the jumper, the Thunder have already won the battle. But the problem is that he can't limit him to the jumper in the first place. It's got to be Thabo Sefolosha, and it's got to be Thabo for the majority of the game. James Harden is outmatched, but he has got to get minutes as well.
Some of it's in transition. How does Durant avoid that? He can't. But he can't give and-one fouls. Whether the fouls are fair or not, he's getting tagged. He's got to either wrap James up, or if he can't, he's got to let it go. The Thunder need him on the floor.
But in the half-court set, Durant cannot survive trying to contain James one-on-one. It's not just the points.
James is proving in this series why he's better than Durant so far, and it's got nothing to do with scoring, where Durant has no equal (despite James outscoring him the past two games, much of that has to do with attempts). It's James' rebounding, where he's crushing Durant (8-2 advantage for James in the first half with Durant trying to box him out). It's the cumulative exhustion from defense. James consistently denied Durant the ball in the fourth quarter of Game 3, goading Russell Westbrook into late-game offense, always an adventure the Thunder don't want to partake in.
LeBron James has shown why he's the best player on the planet in this series, and it has to do with his playmaking ability, not just the scoring. Durant is outmatched, and needs to do what he does, hit jumpshots. To do that he has to be on the floor and not be frustrated with his defense or foul trouble. The Thunder have to move him off James.
Durant's become a phenomenal defender this season. He is one of the best in the league (very loosely defined) at this point. But while there's no good matchup for LeBron James, the Thunder can live with James abusing other members of the Thunder, and those other members are doing the best job.
It's not as dramatic, it's not as iconic. But it's time for the Thunder to help Kevin Durant be the best he can be. And that means letting him focus on offense.
It's not working. Time for something different. Because if the Thunder don't find a way to at least make life difficult for James, they'll be climbing out of too deep a hole.