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After popping for 17 points and 16 points in the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant struggled in the final frame of Game 3. The league's reigning scoring champion missed 4 of 6 field-goal attempts and both of his free throws in the fourth, scoring just four points in the last 12 minutes on Sunday night as his Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Miami Heat, 91-85, to give Miami a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven championship series. As the two teams went back to the drawing board on Monday to prepare for Tuesday's Game 4, an awful lot of talk centered on Durant's quiet fourth and the degree to which the defense of LeBron James influenced it.
Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, noted shot-blocker and runner-up in this year's Defensive Player of the Year balloting, thinks the answer is, "Not that much." Also, he thinks down 1-2 in the Finals is a good time to talk reckless. From Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post:
"LeBron is not a good defender," Ibaka said about the player who received the most votes for the league's all-defensive team, which is selected by the coaches.
"He can play defense for two to three minutes but not 48 minutes." [...]
"LeBron can't play (Durant) one-on-one," Ibaka said. "They're playing good defense like a team."
Appraised of Ibaka's comments on Tuesday, James reportedly offered a succinct reply: "I don't really care what he says. It's stupid."
Here, courtesy of Your Man, a less succinct reply:
• Way to go, Serge Ibaka! Trash talking makes everything more fun. Remember how much we liked it when Kevin Durant backed down Dwyane Wade, shot over him, then smiled and told him he was "too small"? (Of course you do. That happened literally two days ago, in Game 3.) Now we will all be like, "Oooh, intrigue!" every time Ibaka and James share the floor, and be able to laugh and smile about how great it is that two young, competitive, combative teams are willing to mix it up for our amusement. Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!
• Shrewd analysis, Serge Ibaka! Through three games, Durant has been able to score with some regularity over James. At least, that's what ESPN.com's Beckley Mason sees on the game tape:
The tape shows Durant is hardly struggling in one-on-one confrontations with James. In fact, James has not been able to stay in front of Durant off the dribble and Durant has also been able to shoot with relative ease because James tends to play one-on-one defense with his hands low.
Durant has missed some open shots, but for the most part he's getting the same looks he did against Battier.
What's that Jeff Van Gundy's always saying? "It's a make-or-miss league," right? For the most part, Durant's just had better luck making 'em over Battier (and, in limited action, over Wade) than he has over James.
[Adrian Wojnarowski: NBA hoping to generate more revenue with World Cup of Basketball proposal]
• But wait a sec, Serge Ibaka! Not being able to defend Durant one-on-one for a full game does not mean you are not a good defender. There are plenty of excellent NBA defenders who can't guard Durant one-on-one for a full game. You know why? Because Durant is a ridiculously gifted scorer.
Want to put a standard swingman type on him? Watch as Durant uses his height, long arms and springs to shoot over the top. Want to give the assignment to a taller, rangier defender? Watch KD use his agility and quickness to blow past the bigger dude off the bounce.
Just missed a shot that led to a Thunder rebound on offense? Better look up, because that praying-mantis-shaped dude just leaked out off the wing and is speeding down the other end looking for an outlet and a transition dunk. Stay with him on the shake, guess right on every move, crowd him and get a hand in his face? Get bummed out by how his accurate shooting touch routinely enables him to knock down shots that a lot of other players just don't have in the bag.
As he gets older, stronger and develops his post game a bit more — think how Dirk Nowitzki evolved as his career progressed — there won't be anywhere on the court off-limits to Durant's scoring skill, and he's not far off that now. There's a reason he's led the league in scoring in each of the last three seasons, and it's not because every guy guarding him is bad at defense. Not being able to guard Durant one-on-one doesn't make LeBron a bad defender; it makes him human. (It might be one of the few things on a basketball court that does.)
• Also, huh, Serge Ibaka? Like, LeBron literally just did capably defend KD, in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Remember? When Durant managed just four points on 2-for-6 shooting while being guarded by James? (Again: You should. That was only two days ago.)
Don't believe me? Ask ProBasketballTalk's Matt Moore:
James engaged Durant all over the court. Baseline to baseline, sideline to sideline. Durant would flash for a lob, James was there with him, step for step. Durant would cut to the wing behind a screen, James was right there, somehow avoiding the foul but getting through the screen. Durant was in the post, trying to use his length to get around James (a curious tactic given his strengths). [James] forced him to the baseline, so far he was shooting behind the basket. [...]
He guided [Durant] into Chris Bosh for a bock. He forced him out of his positions. He rendered him isolated, stranded on the Isle of LeBron, trying to find his way to the ball, points, to a victory that would not come.
SI.com's Zach Lowe saw things similarly, noting James' "incredible speed and deft positioning" (along with more of the same from Miami point guard Mario Chalmers) in forcing just enough hesitation on catch-and-shoot opportunities to turn open looks into contested jumpers and chances for quick ball movement into defended one-on-one isolation plays. Durant hit some of those one-on-one shots, because Durant's fantastic, but the Thunder's offense as a whole slowed, bogged and suffered, which was a big win for Miami. And something that doesn't happen if literally anybody else but LeBron is tracking Durant.
• Plus: C'mon, Serge Ibaka. No, for real. C'mon, Serge. You are just kind of trolling, right? Well, at the risk of feeding the trolls, some disinfectant:
James held opposing power forwards and small forwards to well-below-league-average effective shooting percentages this season, limited both to pretty sound scoring marks of 17.3 points per 48 minutes this season, and allowed sub-par per-minute Player Efficiency Ratings of 14.8 and 10.3, respectively (thanks, 82games.com). So, guys he defended produced at worse-than-league-average levels this season.
Plus, Heat opponents posted higher field-goal and 3-point percentages, turned it over less frequently, and scored at a more efficient rate when LeBron sat than when he played (thanks, NBA.com's statistical analysis tool). The Heat's defense was still good when he was off the floor, giving up an average of 97.3 points per 100 possessions, but it was better when he was on it, at 97-per-100.
He also gave up fewer points per possession as a primary defender than Ibaka did this year (0.83 to 0.87), and allowed opponents to score on a significantly lower percentage of possessions (36.5 percent to 41 percent) than Serge (thanks, Synergy Sports Technology)? And he edged Ibaka in defensive rating — an estimate of how many points an individual defender allows per 100 possessions — by one point-per-100 (thanks, Basketball-Reference.com).
Basically, any way you look at it, there's not really very much support for Serge Ibaka saying that LeBron James isn't a good defender. He is good. He's really good. Very legitimately deserving of being named to the league's top All-Defensive team four straight times, and of being the leading vote-getter this year. Fewer crazy pills for Serge Ibaka, please.
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