Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard: NBA’s Best Matchup

Oct 28, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 28, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

In the league that loves one-on-one matchups more than any other, we saw the best there is Wednesday night.

You can’t craft a better, more intriguing clash than Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard. Not in today’s NBA.

While the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to pull out the 112-106 win at home over the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard’s defense on Durant was one of the more compelling elements of the game.

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This was Durant’s first game since Feb. 19 so there is some expected and apparent rust with the former MVP. Some of that is not being quite as quick with his actions and as comfortable as he once was. He didn’t shoot a free throw until the second half, somewhat of a trend for him, and was looking for a lot of calls he didn’t get.

The Spurs’ defense had a lot to do with that as they looked like they were in midseason form for stretches, just totally prepared for what OKC was trying to do on offense. But it’s fair to attribute some of it to KD not being totally back yet.

Durant hit three jumpers over Leonard early, but then Leonard started making it really tough on him. He even had a fairly emphatic block on a jump shot that just isn’t normal for the 6-foot-11 Durant, who typically doesn’t even notice contests on his jumper. Durant finished 6-of-19 from the field.

Leonard is great on Durant, and anyone for that matter, when he gets the ball. We know of his length and his ability to disrupt dribbles and closely contest shots. His anticipation is that off a veteran film junkie. All of this is why he was Defensive Player of the Year last season.

It’s also his work when Durant was off the ball that was so important. Durant has never been a workaholic without the ball. He’s far from Reggie Miller in that regard. Leonard really exposes that in Durant’s game. He works nonstop to alter Durant’s path around screens and does a lot of face-guarding just getting in KD’s chest.

The Thunder were never able to make Leonard pay for overplaying Durant either, despite a few feeble attempts at backdoor cuts that didn’t work out.

Durant was able to get free for some clean looks. This 1-3 pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook was one of the most effective sets for the Thunder down the stretch.

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All of this made for a fascinating battle within the game. On one hand you have Durant, who was put on this earth to score the basketball as much as anything. And then there’s Leonard, who may have frankly been put on this earth to stop a scorer like Durant.

The two met head-on last night and Leonard had the upper hand, something hardly anyone that has ever been matched up with Durant can claim.

The NBA’s best scorers through the years have always had those rivalries with defensive-minded players. Michael Jordan had the Bad Boys, those physical Knicks teams and then Bryon Russell by the end of his career. Kobe Bryant had guys like Doug Christie, Matt Barnes and Raja Bell. Durant has had Metta World Peace, Tony Allen and now Leonard.

What’s different is the level Leonard is at. All of those defensive specialists on the perimeter that rivaled the game’s greatest scorers, their impact is usually much less offensively. We saw last night Leonard score a career-high 32 points. He used the same mindset on offense to wear down Durant and the Thunder defense on the other end.

He doesn’t overthink it or unveil a fancy variety of moves. Just a lot of efficient, hard, fundamental actions that, when combined with his physical gifts, can make him quite a force.

The ability for Durant and Leonard to go at each other on both ends makes this matchup unique. Durant and LeBron James have had that, but being in different conferences they haven’t met nearly as much as the Thunder and Spurs have.

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  • In the 2012 Western Conference Finals, Leonard was just a rookie and not ready yet to slow down KD, who torched the Spurs for 29.5 points on 53.2 percent shooting in six games.

    Durant had Leonard on his hip for six games in the 2014 Western Conference Finals and the work Leonard did in that series, holding Durant to 25.8 points per game, was one of the biggest reasons why the Spurs came out on top.

    I don’t think there’s an NBA fan that would complain if a Thunder-Spurs series is a thing we see every two years and Durant-Leonard should be the biggest reason why.

    It’s all coming together with these two. They’re both the best at what they do. We know Durant in his prime is an all-time talent and Leonard continues to make the case that he should be in that conversation too.

    The Thunder and Spurs play three more times this season but the next meeting isn’t until March. If that’s not must-see TV, I don’t know what is.

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