If LeBron James looked hesitant in the early parts of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 115-92 road win over Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder, it was only because he was processing everything. Calculations complete, he proceeded to dominate in his team's statement win with versatility and start-to-finish control that nobody—not even the seemingly unstoppable Durant—could match.
There's room for criticism of James' I'm-in-charge approach.
It sometimes feels as though control is something he demands, often to the detriment of his team. He slows the pace and surveys the floor early in games, perhaps pulling the reins too tight and constricting the natural flow of the offense. The results are generally good, and it's hard to be too critical of a Cavs attack that ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. But there's often a sense that the Cavaliers must not only succeed, but succeed on the terms James dictates.
But James' plan worked Sunday, just as it generally does. And it needed to, as the Cavaliers came into the game missing Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Mo Williams. When Kyrie Irving exited with flu-like symptoms in the first quarter, Cleveland's only point guard was Matthew Dellavedova, who was on a 25-minute limit because of a sore hamstring.
The first quarter was all about James getting shots for his teammates, often passing up exploitable one-on-one matchups of his own. As a result of early touches, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and even Tristan Thompson were fully engaged throughout.
And things got particularly exciting when James decided to pick up the pace in the second quarter. He played point guard for a long stretch before halftime and found Tristan Thompson with this pretty lob at the end of the second quarter.
James would finish with 25 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds.
Durant, meanwhile, played his typical game. He scored 26 points on 21 shots, hit a handful of beautiful in-between runners and flips that only he could and generally looked the part of the league's scariest all-around scorer. But it wasn't nearly enough—not even with Russell Westbrook chipping in 20 points, 11 assists and nine boards.
This isn't to say Durant is at all selfish or objectively inferior to James. It's just that he's different.
KD is a dominant scorer—probably the single hardest offensive player in the league to stop. He makes his teammates better just by being there and drawing the attention he does. As a byproduct of his individual greatness, shots come easier for teammates. But James actively involves others in an effort to get them going. It's just how he's wired.
Durant, even when he's deferring to Westbrook, isn't exactly setting him up. It's more like he's getting out of the way. Like he's letting someone else take a turn.
This isn't a crazy strategy. And as a general principle, it's a good idea to get out of Westbrook's way:
James manipulates space on the floor—probing, faking and drawing players on both teams into positions he prefers. It's a deliberate process—one distinct from Durant's simpler approach, which is to score on whoever's guarding him.
James' tactics seem to produce better success in his supporting cast.
Example: When OKC lost to the Cavaliers back on Dec. 17, nobody outside its top three (Durant, Wesbrook and Serge Ibaka) scored more than six points. In that 104-100 win, six Cavs reached double figures, and neither Irving nor Shumpert even played. On Sunday, the story was exactly the same: Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka were the only Thunder players in double digits, with KD's 26 points leading the way.
Six Cavaliers scored at least 11 points, led by Kevin Love's 29.
Thanks to constant early touches, many of which came directly from James, Love was dialed in, per Chris Haynes of the Plain Dealer:
Really impressed with how aggressive Kevin Love is playing. He's not hesitating. #Cavs much better when he just plays, doesn't think much.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) February 21, 2016
It's not fair to credit James entirely for Love's performance, but there was no question whether involving the often marginalized Love was a priority. James helped make it happen.
After highlighting the distinctions between superstars, the next impulse is to make value judgments. We want to rank these guys because we like order. And if James is more versatile and has this unique ability to control games, it's tempting to say he's just better than Durant. That's certainly what the career head-to-head record between the two suggests, via ESPN Stats & Info:
16th head-to-head matchup between LeBron James & Kevin Durant. LeBron has won 12 of the 15 matchups. 3:30 ET on ABC— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 21, 2016
Make that 13 wins in 16 games for James.
Remember, though, we're a couple of ill-timed postseason injuries away from a world in which Durant has a ring or two. And even if James clearly dictated the outcome in Sunday's game—in a way Durant simply couldn't have—KD might just as easily score his way to wins in their next half-dozen meetings without surprising anyone.
Durant is a brilliant player, but when you think about the ways he's capable of beating an opponent, it's always about how easily he can score. James isn't limited in that way. He lets you pick how you'd like to be beaten. And because his skill set is so varied, it doesn't really matter what you choose.
If James and Durant meet again this season, it'll be in the NBA Finals. And while Durant's dominant scoring generally gives his team an edge, James' versatility remains the biggest factor in that hypothetical matchup—and any other the Cavs are likely to see down the stretch.
Anthony Davis Isn't Done Yet
With a brutal start and loads of injuries draining the optimism from the New Orleans Pelicans' once-promising season, this post-All-Star-break stretch was supposed to be a slog to the disappointing finish.
The Pellies were supposed to be finished.
Nobody told Anthony Davis.
AD got cartoonish in the Pelicans' 111-106 win against the Detroit Pistons, scoring a personal best and NBA season-high 59 points while also snaring 20 rebounds. Davis did it from everywhere, hitting 24-of-34 from the field, 9-of-10 from the foul line and 2-of-2 from long range. And in the process, he joined truly rare company, per ESPN:
Anthony Davis had himself a night. The Brow joined Shaq as the only players with 55/20 games in the last 40 years. pic.twitter.com/S86ADrhpC8— ESPN (@espn) February 21, 2016
And yes, this is the appropriate reaction:
What a game for Anthony Davis! pic.twitter.com/TVG07OYBaF— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) February 21, 2016
"They kept trying to feed me the ball and I was just trying to make the most out of it and after a while you feel like any shot you put up is going to go in," Davis told John Reid of the Times Picayune. "I definitely felt like that tonight and I'm just glad they did go in."
This season was supposed to mean something for the Pelicans. Davis was going to make another leap, win an MVP and lead a solid team to a mid-tier playoff seed. Those last two things are out of the question now, but it seems like the first may yet come to pass. Unfortunately, Davis' recent surge (he scored 34 points on Friday, and his scoring volume and efficiency are higher in February than any preceding month) comes at a time when it might do more harm than good.
New Orleans is five-and-a-half games out of the No. 8 spot in the West, which means a postseason berth is still possible. If Davis keeps playing like this, the Pelicans might find themselves without a lottery pick and facing a first-round juggernaut. Normally, you'd at least be happy with the playoff experience. But so little of the Pelicans' current roster figures to be with the franchise long term (both Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are free agents this summer), that there's really not much to gain.
Of course, if Davis winds up in a playoff series, now we know he's capable of winning games by himself. And that'd be kind of fun to see.
The Hornets Are Onto Something
Al Jefferson is back from a knee injury, and he’s feeling good.
We know that because he told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:
Al Jefferson told me the other day his right knee is pain-free for first time in a year or more. Clifford said he's regained agility.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) February 21, 2016
And we also know that because he scored 18 points off the bench in the Charlotte Hornets’ 104-96 win against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.
If Jefferson, a starter for most of his career, is willing to accept a permanent bench role, it could pay huge dividends for the Hornets. This is a team defined on offense by space, ball movement and three-point shooting now.
"This is not the same team of two years ago or last year when the ball had to go through me every time," Jefferson told Bonnell after his first game back on Friday.
Jefferson’s post game doesn’t exactly jibe with how the starters play, and it’s probably best not to disrupt the five-game break-spanning run they’ve put together. But he can prey on opposing understudies as a reserve scoring anchor, and his defensive limitations won’t be so badly exposed against second units.
Charlotte is primed for a run toward that No. 4 seed in the East, and Jefferson’s post scoring off the bench can help it get there.
You Can’t Knock the Hustle
Effort is a tricky thing. So, actually, you can.
When we talk about a team’s defining characteristic being hustle or heart, we’re usually describing a squad that’s also short on talent. We call those clubs scrappy. We don’t often call them great. And any time we talk about a team playing effortlessly in positive tones (See: Warriors, Golden State), we’re reinforcing that same idea from the other side.
Playing hard is great, but we like it most when things look easy.
By that logic, this play early in the fourth quarter of the Boston Celtics’ 121-101 win against the Denver Nuggets represents more limitation than potential. The Celtics have to play this way because they lack a star and, therefore, probably aren’t a threat to do serious playoff damage—even if they’re pretty clearly the No. 3 team in the East right now.
Still, it’s a heck of a play.
And for Boston, it might represent something more than an opportunity for us to offer backhanded praise. That’s because the Celtics own the third-best defensive rating in the league this year, though recent slippage actually has that ranking all the way down to 15th since Feb. 1. During that same span since Feb. 1, Boston’s offense has exploded, scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions, good for eighth in the league.
If the Celtics re-establish the hustle that made them so dominant on defense earlier in the year while also sustaining their offensive growth, they’ll be more than a “Well, at least they play hard” outfit.
There's No Such Thing As a One-Man Team
But there's evidence the two-man defense exists.
The San Antonio Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns, giving up an uncomfortably generous 111 points in the process. Phoenix, playing worse than just about anybody in the league for the last two months, scored 56 points in the paint and actually tied the game at 100 in the fourth quarter.
And the Spurs, though still on pace to lead the league in defensive efficiency, continued an alarming slide on that end. In its last 10 games, San Antonio's defensive rating ranks 13th in the league.
Why is that, Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News?
The Spurs played most of those games without either Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard, it's worth noting.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 21, 2016
Oh. Well that makes sense.
Patty Mills scored 21 and tied a career high with six made triples, while Kyle Anderson charged everyone up with some off-brand athleticism.
Scoring won't be an issue for this team, regardless of who's on the floor. But the Spurs need Kawhi Leonard (who missed his third straight game with a tight left calf) and Tim Duncan (back from a knee injury, but limited) at full strength to really profile as title-chasers.
The Lance Stephenson Era Will Be Eventful
There will be no candlelight vigils for Jeff Green, departed Memphis Grizzlies forward and heir to Rudy Gay's "makes his team better by leaving" throne. The player he was traded for, Lance Stephenson, however, will set some fires.
In Memphis' 98-85 loss to the Toronto Raptors, Stephenson debuted in character, scoring tough buckets, looking occasionally like a real difference-making shot creator and also, sometimes, screwing things up hilariously. He had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, but posted a startling minus-12 in just 22 minutes.
There were things like this:
And there were also things like this, per Simon Legg of NBA Australia:
Dave Joerger after a shot-clock killing, ugly dribble sequence from Lance Stephenson ended with a carry. pic.twitter.com/ohkkeatXdq— Simon Legg (@Simon_Legg) February 21, 2016
Also this, via NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris:
Lance Stephenson with 9 of the most destructive minutes I’ve seen.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) February 21, 2016
The Grizzlies are going to lose most of their games without Marc Gasol, but Stephenson will make them strange and awful and great. That's something.
We Need More of This
Gentle human, good guy and Kobe Bryant survivor Pau Gasol introduced his former teammate in Bryant's final visit to the United Center in Chicago. It was touching stuff, and Bryant responded with an efficient (for him) 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting in L.A.'s 126-115 loss. Both were on the floor in the closing minutes, too, which was an added bonus.
Here's the thing, though: We're missing an opportunity. We need more of Bryant's former teammates to introduce him on the road. And we need them to be honest, just like Pau was. Imagine what some of them would say.
Can we please get Smush Parker to sign with a team so he can do this?
Maybe Kwame Brown? Chris Mihm?
Let's get on this, people.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.