It took nearly four years for Kevin Durant to beat LeBron James in an NBA game. That’s how it goes when James, the best player of his generation, decides to make a matchup a priority. Of all the stars to challenge LeBron over the years, none seemed so direct as Durant. The two shared a position, even if they both grew so much as to shatter its traditional limits. James was too strong for most other wings to check him and Durant too long. It only made sense that they would guard one another—the kind of explicit confrontation between superstars that can make a routine game in mid-March feel like a showcase.
Had Durant been a point guard or a center, James would likely have approached games against him as he would any other elite player. Their positional alignment, however, gave the two friends something extra—a point of pride as comparison between them came to a swell. “I know there is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot,” James said in 2013. “And I know where he is, too. He's in Oklahoma.” The consensus best player in the sport went on to call Durant his inspiration. ”We're driving one another,” he said.
Their entire dynamic, while amicable, struck a nerve with Durant. "I've been second my whole life," Durant told SI in 2013. "I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."
All three times that Durant came second in MVP voting, it was James who beat him out. Durant finally rectified that with his award-clinching performance in 2014. When Durant came second in the Finals, it was to James and the Heat. That was five years ago, but Durant finally has a chance—after years of bad breaks—to complete the circle. Between the regular season and the playoffs, James and Durant have played 23 games against one another. LeBron has won 18 of them.
If there were ever a chance for Durant to tip the balance, it would be now. Durant on the Thunder played a style that fed into the confrontational nature of the matchup. So much of his game was rooted in isolation that possessions would boil down to whether he could score directly over James. This has long been one of the few matchups in which Durant couldn’t back his way into a clean turnaround jumper whenever he liked. It was the rare occasion in which a defender could mirror him step for step without giving up an untenable height advantage. Still, Durant played well—keeping with James, point for point, over the life of their matchup—just not quite well enough to win.
How foreign it must seem to Durant to enter these NBA Finals as the favorite. Yet in playing with the Warriors, he is exactly that. Durant is the element that disrupts Cleveland’s best-laid plans. The most improbable comeback in NBA Finals history was forged by knocking Stephen Curry out of rhythm: First by victimizing him in switches on to James, then by holding and bumping him off the ball as he looked to shake himself free. The toll of that activity wore down a player who had otherwise seemed unguardable. Add Durant into the mix, however, and that winning formula sprouts all sorts of caveats. Any effort to get the ball out of Curry’s hands will now land it in Durant’s. Those safe, reliable isos are always available when needed. Yet Durant has engaged more fully in the Warriors’ offense as this season has worn on, to the point where Golden State now has a vicious back-cutter and ball-mover who just so happens to be a former MVP.
His presence alone all but forces James into another direct matchup—this time at incredible cost. Some of Cleveland’s defensive success in last year’s Finals is owed to their maneuvering to let LeBron roam free. By having him guard iffy spot-up threats like Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, the Cavs freed James to apply a more constant influence. Every defensive possession could be shaped by the threat of a looming LeBron. One side of the floor was gummed up by his presence. Any drive inside came under the assumption of his crowding or help. An all-time basketball mind with all-time basketball reflexes was set loose. Golden State, already limited by Curry’s knee injury, never quite recovered.
As if a healthier Curry at the height of his powers in these playoffs weren’t problem enough, the Cavs no longer have the same matchup luxury. At any given time, the Warriors might have one sanctuary matchup to hide a lesser defender, broaden James’s application, or even to afford him some rest from what’s sure to be a heavy workload. Should it go to Kevin Love, who otherwise would be a blinking, neon target in the pick-and-roll? Might it make sense to protect Kyrie Irving against certain lineups, where possible? No team matches up all that well with the Warriors, and the situation could only get worse if Cleveland willingly moves its most versatile defender out of a high-leverage matchup.
Cleveland experimented in the regular season with having James guard Klay Thompson while Iman Shumpert checks Durant, one of the few realistic alternatives on the board. It proved as awkward as one might expect; forcing James to chase Thompson around off-ball screens is neither the best use of his defensive talents nor the wisest expenditure of energy. It also affords LeBron little room to wander; even the slightest separation could result in a wide open look for a great (if slumping) three-point shooter. All the while, Shumpert could play technically perfect defense on Durant and still give up bucket after bucket. Moving pieces around to give up seven inches in height to one of the best shooters ever does not sound like winning strategy.
There’s just no way out. Not only will James have to guard Durant for much of these Finals out of sheer necessity, but he may need to play every minute that Durant does in this series and then some. Cleveland will need to make up ground in those minutes when either Durant or Curry rests. Yet any Warriors lineup featuring Durant all but demands LeBron’s involvement, eliminating most windows for possible rest. It is entirely possible that James winds up logging 45 minutes in any competitive games in these Finals. His endurance is spectacular enough to accommodate that, but doing so while carrying the offense and checking Durant would come with heavy repercussions. That everything in this series will be easier for Durant could lead to a noticeable disparity in energy level by mid-series.
James isn’t always the most committed to contesting shooters tucked behind a screen or pulling up off the dribble as it is. Durant will make those occasional lapses painful. Even a locked in LeBron might still, by minute 40, get caught on a pick just enough for Durant to fire away. James might be one of the best theoretical covers for Durant in the league and yet, by the nature of who Durant is now playing with and the impossible task of guarding every Warrior at once, it might not mean a damn thing. James cannot be both the specific stopper the Cavs need to contain Durant and the broad catch-all necessary to disrupt Curry and the Warriors’ perpetual motion.
That these Finals are much bigger than KD vs. LeBron does not change that their proceedings—down to what strategies are viable and what lineups are playable—will be defined by it. This is a rematch between franchises and a reunion between positional rivals but something new entirely between the lines. The Warriors and Durant were already independently great. Then they aligned to become a sort of competitive nightmare, the sort that can terrorize even a LeBron-led superpower through their breadth of possibility.