Given that Stephen Curry is currently deemed by many NBA watchers to be the best player in the NBA, certainly there’s no question in these same circles that his closest challenger comes from among LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hard-fought 104-100 victory over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night, the respective game plans of this outstanding trio were on display.
Here’s how each of them rose (and fell) to the occasion.
He played a total of 40 minutes, which isn’t an abnormal amount for LeBron in an important game. What was unusual, however, was how those minutes were spaced. Usually, he’d be rested for 4-6 minutes at the start of the second and fourth quarters. But here, LBJ bench-periods roughly consisted of four two-minute stretches. This procedure kept him warm, loose and thoroughly involved in the action.
He was 12-27 (44.4 percent) from the field, which included 2-5 from beyond the arc. All told, his jump-shooting accuracy was a mediocre 3-8. Worse, he only made half (7-14) of his layups and flip-shots — however, he was clearly fouled on two of these misses with no call forthcoming. In the low post, LeBron was 2-4.
Counting his 7-8 shooting at the stripe, James totaled a game-high 33 points. An impressive total, for sure, but for LeBron, an almost pedestrian performance.
His 11 assists were likewise routinely spectacular. Lobs, kick-outs and one stunning behind-the-back pass that Tristan Thompson turned into a rousing dunk. In addition, LeBron’s passes created seven open shots that his teammates missed.
On the minus side of his offense were his seven turnovers. Considering how much ball time he has this isn’t a particularly alarming number. Still, some of his TOs were simply careless mistakes: Like stepping out-of-bounds on a relatively unimpaired baseline. Or trying to force his dribble through heavy traffic. Add a couple of off-target skip passes. His only forced TO occurred when adhesive defensive pressure from Durant forced LBJ to throw an errant pass.
There were only two egregious defensive mishaps — allowing Kyle Singler to beat him to the hoop and execute a drop-pass-assist; and being late on one (and only one!) baseline rotation.
Otherwise, LeBron’s defense was exceptional. Several screens forced him to switch off of Durant but, in direct one-on-one confrontations, he limited KD to a single bucket — this on a driving layup.
His nine defensive rebounds (to go along with two offensive ‘bounds) was another significant plus.
GAME GRADE = A-
Hounded by LBJ and sometimes by Richard Jefferson, KD was 7-17 from the field (including 2-6 treys) for 25 mostly quiet points. Most of these shots came after he curled around either high- or pin-down screens set up on the right side of the attack zone. Still, aggressive switches severely limited Durant’s open looks. He did score one hoop on the two occasions when he took Jefferson into the pivot — a maneuver he never attempted under LBJ’s watch.
Durant forced two shots (both misses), and his only easy basket was a fast-break layup.
The highlight of Durant’s offensive output was a sensational reverse layup at the end of a slick baseline drive.
To compensate for the Cavs’ tight defense, Durant unselfishly looked to keep the ball moving — hence his five assists. He also made three passes that would’ve been assists had his teammates made open shots.
On the debit side of the ledger were his four TOs. Stepping on the baseline, trying to force his handle through the teeth of Cleveland’s defense and making a couple of bad passes.
At the defensive end he diligently adhered to LBJ as soon as the ball neared the timeline, and valiantly (but mostly unsuccessfully) tried to battle his way through a perpetual series of screens, but despite his two blocked shots, Durant’s defense was still a mixed bag.
LeBron burned him for 12 points in isolated situations — nothing for Durant to be ashamed about. But on one early-offense sequence, Durant failed to realize that he was supposed to be guarding Jefferson. KD’s utter confusion resulted in Jefferson making an unimpeded dunk. Durant also neglected to switch when he was nailed on several screens.
He played 41 minutes and his own, as well as Cleveland’s, defensive intensity seemed to wear him out.
GAME GRADE = B-
Some early foul trouble limited him to 34 minutes during which he scored 27 points on 10-18 shooting (including 1-3 bonus shots). He converted all four of his fast-break layups, but was only 2-6 on the interior shots he attempted in half-court sets. In fact, he missed one layup because he seemed to be more intent on elbowing Matthew Dellavedova than on making the shot.
Credit Westbrook for burying a clutch mid-range jumper in the endgame, and credit LBJ for pressuring RW into missing an off-balance trey that would’ve tied the game in the closing seconds.
Westbrook’s 10 often-spectacular assists (along with four might-have-been-assists) compared to his four TOs were an indication of how much Westbrook was in control of his marvelous speed, quickness and super talent. Indeed, he also knocked down four of his eight jumpers, an aspect of his game that’s usually been somewhat of a weakness.
Yes, he was far from being selfish — another point that critics often make — and forced only one shot (a missed 18-footer). However, instead of making passes that organized OKC’s half-court sets, all of Westbrook’s passes came on drive-and-kicks or drive-and-drops. This was more function of Billy Donovan’s free-wheeling offensive game plan than anything else.
Quick hands and admirable anticipation led to RW’s four steals. Yet Westbrook was unexpectedly beaten on several drives by Matthew Dellavedova — who burned him for five points (and would’ve scored many more had he made several open layups and flips). Westbrook also yielded a driving bucket when forced to switch on to LBJ.
Yet Westbrook’s largest and most costly brain-lock came late in the game when he failed to make the required defensive transition and allowed LeBron an unimpeded breakaway dunk.
GAME GRADE = B+
On the basis of this game (and on the entire careers of these three All-Stars), LeBron James is by far the superior player. This, because his talents and diligence cover the game from baseline-to-baseline. If KD is a better pure shooter and RW is quicker and faster, LBJ scores, passes, sets screens, rebounds and plays defense.
It says here that the variety and totality of LeBron James’s game maintain his ascendancy over Stephen Curry — and by a considerable margin, too.
For the time being.