OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Two years ago, the Thunder’s Kevin Durant tweeted that Kawhi Leonard was a good player who got a lot of help from the San Antonio Spurs’ system.
Durant recognizes the Leonard Oklahoma City is about to square off against is much more. In fact, Durant is so impressed that he checks how Leonard performs each game.
“He’s grown so much,” Durant said. “He’s probably the best in the league at shooting the mid-range (jumper) off the dribble. He posts up, dribbles, can shoot the three, catch and shoot. Their team, their system, their continuity and how they move allows him to get free a lot of times and utilizes his game.”
Durant respect for Leonard has also grown over the years.
After Leonard was named Finals MVP in 2014, Durant said on Twitter he would take Indiana’s Paul George over Leonard, and that Leonard was “doing work like this because of the system.”
Durant later clarified, saying he meant no disrespect to Leonard, he simply liked George better. Last month, Durant, unprompted, said Leonard is not a “system player.”
On Saturday, Durant and Leonard will renew acquaintances in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals in San Antonio.
Their individual matchup will be worth keeping an eye on.
Durant is a four-time scoring champion who averaged 28.2 points and a career-high 8.2 rebounds per game this season. Leonard is the two-time reigning defensive player of the year who was a first-time All-Star this season and led the Spurs in scoring.
Leonard knows his job will be difficult because of Durant’s versatility.
“Being able to do everything on the floor, shoot, get in the paint, post, create shots for his teammates,” Leonard said of Durant’s skills. “Just active the whole game.”
Leonard has also become more of an offensive threat. His scoring average has increased from 12.8 points per game in 2013-14, to 16.5 last season, to 21.2 this season. He shot a career-high 44.3 percent from 3-point range on a career-high 291 attempts this season.
Some things to watch in the Thunder-Spurs series:
ALDRIDGE EFFECT: LaMarcus Aldridge has gotten comfortable in San Antonio after being acquired in the offseason. He averaged 18.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game this season while allowing Tim Duncan to rest a bit more. “You’ve got to play both ends of the floor a little differently because he’s an All-Star player,” Durant said. “He’s a guy that can shoot over any shoulder, he can shoot from range, he can roll to the rim, so it’s a different dynamic when you play a guy like that, and that’s when you’ve got to be locked in and ready for anything.”
TEXAS-SIZED THREAT: Russell Westbrook had 18 triple-doubles in the regular season, then averaged 26.0 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game in the first round of the playoffs against Dallas. In 12 career playoff games against the Spurs he averages 22.5 points, 7.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. “He’s got a lot of energy, he’s super aggressive and obviously one of the best point guards in the league,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “It’s just fun to play against him. He brings a lot of excitement to the game. It’s always a great matchup.”
THEY HAVE HISTORY: The Thunder beat the Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals in 2011-12, then lost to Miami in the NBA Finals. The Spurs beat the Thunder 4-2 in the 2013-14 Western Conference Finals, and San Antonio beat Miami for the NBA title. “We’ve had some battles,” Durant said. “And there were a few battles where the Finals was on the line. Each team really respects each other and definitely wants to compete.”
COACHING MATCHUP: Gregg Popovich is a five-time NBA champion and the league’s most successful active coach. Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan just won the first playoff series of his career in his first year in the league. Donovan doesn’t look at it as a one-on-one matchup, but he said he learns every time he studies Popovich’s teams. “You watch San Antonio and Pop’s teams play, there’s a lot of respect and admiration for the way their team plays,” Donovan said.
OFFENSE vs. DEFENSE: Oklahoma City scored 112.0 points per game on 47.6 percent shooting against Dallas in the first round and shot better than 50 percent in each of the final three games. San Antonio held Memphis to 81 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting in a first-round sweep.
AP freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.