EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns-Clippers series preview, Pt. 1: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard at last
Apr 10, 2023, 8:02 AM | Updated: 8:42 am
(Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
What Phoenix Suns fans will see starting this weekend is something they’ve only seen a few times in franchise history. Steve Nash in the Seven Seconds or Less Era. Charles Barkley in the early 1990s.
And now in the present day, Kevin Durant, a true out-and-out superstar, will lead the charge in Phoenix’s pursuit of its first championship.
Players at this level are capable of monumental playoff achievements, singlehandedly carrying their team past a pivotal turning point.
Nash in 2005 closed out the Dallas Mavericks with a losing effort of 48 points in Game 4 before lines of 34-13-12 and 39-9-12 in Phoenix’s next two wins.
Barkley in the 1993 run to the NBA Finals had 36 points in Game 5 of the second round against the San Antonio Spurs before hitting one of the biggest shots in purple and orange ever at the end of Game 6, all while contributing 28 points and 21 rebounds. Another 2-2 series and Game 5 in Phoenix for the Western Conference Finals? Barkley delivered a triple-double of 43 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Can’t get it done in six this time? All good. Barkley’s got 44 points and 24 rebounds in Game 7.
Those two guys were MVPs those years. Durant got one in 2014 and his season this year was of that caliber in 47 games. His 29.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.4 blocks per game featured a career-best true shooting percentage of 67.7%, the highest ever among players with at least 25 points per game, per Stathead.
The Valley will see that greatness from Durant, coming out of the phone booth with his cape on, and its first glance at it will come in a matchup against a peer of Durant in that regard, Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers.
With all that in mind, there’s no need to get complicated out of the gates here to preview this series. A lot of it will simply be determined by those two alone. With all due respect to Devin Booker (on his way to this level) and if-he’s-healthy Paul George (never quite got here), that’s the bottom line.
Durant is simply one of the best basketball players ever and Leonard has a case as one of the all-timers at his own position.
Not with me on the latter? Durant is. When picking his own Mount Rushmore of small forwards that included himself back in November, Durant put Leonard alongside himself, Larry Bird and LeBron James.
Leonard, coming off an ACL tear, started playing just about every night in the last three months of the season. And in his final 35 appearances, Leonard was outstanding, posting 27.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 52.6% from the field, 46.8% at 3-point range and 89.7% on free throws. For reference, that’s a 64.8 true shooting percentage.
Here’s the cool part: While this duo has a lot of history together, it has oddly avoided each other in their respective primes due to odd circumstances for two injuries that are, unfortunately, memorable.
The 2017 Western Conference Finals saw the 61-win San Antonio Spurs already staring down the barrel without Tony Parker due to injury, and then in Game 1 against the 67-win Golden State Warriors, the Spurs shockingly jumped out to a 25-point lead before Leonard re-injured his left ankle. Warriors center Zaza Pachulia came under Leonard on a jump shot, forcing Leonard to land on his foot and inspiring a rule change that allowed for flagrant fouls to be called for defenders not allowing shooters to land.
Two years later in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Durant returned for the Warriors after missing a month due to a calf injury against Leonard’s Toronto Raptors that were up 3-1 in the series. In the second quarter, Durant went for a crossover dribble and then went down hobbled, tearing his Achilles.
This postseason will mark their sixth series meeting and the first three were all Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder, as Leonard’s late rise with the Spurs was still in progress. Durant’s 27.4 PPG to Leonard’s 15.8 PPG in 20 playoff matchups overall accentuates that point, according to Stathead.
The regular season edition has only occurred twice in the last five seasons due to injury. As you would expect, they were bangers.
The last meeting was in February 2021, a weird watch back with no fans in attendance. Both guys were sensational. Durant produced 28 points and nine rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting while Leonard in a losing effort was 12-of-24 for 33 points with five rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks.
It’s a step up in shot-making when watching these two, who while playing in two switch-heavy systems still guarded each other some.
Take a team swap for each in the second-to-last encounter, a thrilling overtime win for the Raptors from November 2018 against a Golden State squad without Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Durant responded to that responsibility with 51 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Leonard wasn’t too shabby, either, amounting to 37 points, eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.
While Pascal Siakam spent time on Durant for Toronto to give the back-to-back reigning Finals MVP a different look other than Leonard, Durant was on Leonard every second he was out there. Both guys once again sought out mismatches through switching screens but squared up on occasion.
This was a two-point game with just over 90 seconds left when Durant answered a Leonard bucket with back-to-back 3s to send it to overtime. It was rather ridiculous.
Leonard got the last laugh with a gigantic forced turnover on Durant at a 126-123 scoreline and under two minutes remaining.
While the infatuation with head-to-head matchups is there, modern defenses switch so much that we will more often than not see them attacking other defenders. That was the story of the 2021 showdown and it will be for some of this series, too.
But it is in the interest of both sides to prevent that as much as possible. Scottie Pippen’s existence is the only reason why Leonard doesn’t hold a dominant claim as the best perimeter defender ever, and if George is out, all other marks on Durant are in a five-alarm-fire amount of distress. On the other side of it, any switch Leonard gets off Durant’s size, length and strength combination is a tremendous physical advantage that will encourage double-teams, like Durant’s.
As we saw, specifically in Toronto, Durant and Leonard have a way of trying to outdo each other. That’s what future Hall of Famers are like when combating, and what fuels them to do so is why we love sports.
We will be able to witness that magic right away in the first round. Grab your popcorn.