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Quantitatively speaking, Durant to face toughest challenge in Spurs’ Leonard

As game one between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder is set to tip off Monday evening, a key matchup between the two teams will be NBA MVP Kevin Durant, being defended by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Two years ago when the two squads met in the Western Conference Finals, Durant averaged 29.5 points, shot 53.2% from the field, shot 9.3 free throws, grabbed 7.5 rebounds, and threw 5.3 assists in 42.8 minutes per game, against the Spurs in six games, with a rookie Leonard and Stephen Jackson defending him a majority of the series.

Fast-forward two years later, and on the eve of game one of the Western Conference Finals, a more developed version of Leonard on both sides of the ball, is about to take his shot at defending Durant in a new series. Today’s Leonard finished 11th in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting this season, and as you’re about see below, he’s also statistically going to be Durant’s toughest challenge on both sides of the ball through this 2013-2014 playoff run.

Solely using the Synergy Sports database, I’ve charted three defenders based on how low they hold their opponents overall on a Points Per Possession ranking amongst all NBA players. The first player is Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies. Allen held Durant to 29.9 points, 44.0% shooting, 8.6 free throws attempts, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 46.3 minutes per game, in seven games against the Thunder.

The second defender is Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers, who held Durant to 33.2 points, 47.0% shooting, 11.0 free throw attempts, 9.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in 42.5 minutes per game, in six games against the Thunder. As you can see from the chart below, Leonard’s rank in all but Post-Up and Spot-Up defense is better in most scoring type categories than both Allen and Barnes. Durant, who also ranks offensively Top-70 in all offensive categories per Synergy, will have a new challenge with Leonard defending him.

Play Type Tony Allen (Def)
Points Per Poss. (Rank)
Matt Barnes (Defense) Kawhi Leonard (Defense)
Kevin Durant (Offense)
Overall 0.88 PPP (193) 0.83 PPP (91) 0.78 PPP (36) 1.08 PPP (15)
Isolation 1.05 PPP (280) 0.79 PPP (116) 0.69 PPP (50) 1.08 PPP (4)
P&R Ball Handler 0.81 PPP (128) 0.80 PPP (116) 0.65 PPP (20) 1.00 PPP (4)
Post Up 1.13 PPP (NR) 0.89 PPP (165) 1.00 PPP (232) 1.04 PPP (14)
P&R Roll Man 0.50 PPP (NR) 1.13 PPP (NR) 1.28 PPP (NR) 1.15 PPP (24)
Spot Up 0.93 PPP (131) 0.75 PPP (12) 0.95 PPP (171) 1.19 PPP (26)
Off Screen 0.86 PPP (71) 1.01 PPP (138) 0.73 PPP (24) 0.93 PPP (68)
Hand Off 0.69 PPP (22) 0.97 PPP (95) 0.63 PPP (10) 0.91 PPP (51)

One of the biggest areas Leonard will have to stay clear of his personal foul count. If he draws two to three early fouls, he’ll likely have to sit on the bench for a large portion of the game, which would put the Spurs in a position they’d likely not want to be in – having to use their second or third defensive back up plans for Durant.

As Jose Grijalva of Project Spurs also wrote recently, the one storyline most aren’t talking about is how Durant will have to play defense on Leonard. In the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers, Leonard finished as the Spurs’ second leading scorer, averaging 17.0 points, shooting 56.1% from the floor, 52.9% from three, and grabbing 7.6 rebounds in 30.4 minutes per game. As Grijalva noted in his column, Leonard’s aggressiveness on offense could force Durant to spend more than his usual amount of energy on the defensive end, which could reduce his output and efficiency on the offensive end, where the Thunder need him to be one of their three best players in production.

If Leonard could make last season’s MVP, LeBron James of the Miami Heat make this reaction in last year’s NBA Finals, it’ll be interesting to see what or if he can be a nuisance defensively on Durant in the coming days.

(Statistics via NBA.com/stats, Synergy Sports)

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.

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