They are men of copious talents, few words and signature hair, and when they meet, something spectacular usually happens.
A thrilling three-point shooting duel. A breathtaking block at the rim. A swift series of crossovers and countermoves and tangled limbs from baseline to baseline.
James Harden, the lithe scoring maestro with the voluminous beard and the dizzying footwork.
Kawhi Leonard, the steely Swiss army knife with the taut cornrows and the machine-like precision.
Harden sparked a Rockets revival, Leonard powered another 60-win season in San Antonio, and it seemed inevitable that these two MVP candidates—who famously collided at the rim in early March—would meet again in May, with so much more at stake.
The moment came Monday night, as the Spurs and Rockets opened their Western Conference semifinal series—the start of a best-of-seven chess match that will test the wits and the resolve of everyone around them.
There are few similarities between the 6'5" Harden, an explosive point guard, and the 6'7" Leonard, a methodical two-way forward—save for the effect they have on opponents.
"One big headache," Jeff Bzdelik, the Rockets defensive coordinator, says of Leonard.
"A tremendous challenge," Spurs forward David Lee says of Harden.
Leonard earned fame with his suffocating defense, but this season he joined the scoring elite, ranking ninth in the NBA with 25.5 points per game. Harden's stardom stemmed from his scoring prowess, but this season he became the league's most prolific playmaker, collecting a league-high 11.2 assists per game (to supplement his 29.1 points).
The Spurs and Rockets had barely three days to prepare for one another following San Antonio's clinching victory over Memphis on Thursday. Suffice to say, no one got much sleep.
B/R Mag sent Howard Beck to Houston and Jonathan Abrams to San Antonio to find out how each team was getting ready.
SAN ANTONIO — Danny Green will be the Spurs' first line of defense against Harden. He's rangy, an inch taller and is familiar with the onslaught of picks that will no doubt come his way.
"He does everything," Green says. "The guy has the whole package. It's very tough to game-plan against. It can't be just one person that tries to contain him. It has to be a group of people together, collectively."
Green, an elite three-point shooter, is prepared to forsake his offense in an effort to detour Harden.
"Defense is what I'm worried about most of the time, every time I step onto the floor," Green says. "Obviously, when you hit shots, that's great. It'll help for sure. Not just me, but everybody. But me, worrying about my offensive game—I'm not here for offense. They don't run plays for me.
"I'm a guy that spaces the floor, and defensively, got to contain my man. If I do my job on defense, offense will come, but it will still give my team a chance to win games." — J.A.
"He can pretty much do everything," says Ariza, who guarded Leonard about 65 percent of the time during their regular-season matchups. "He's not just one-dimensional. He scores in a variety of ways—post-ups, pull-up jumpers, threes. He can create, other players can create for him, he can play off the ball.
"You really have to pay attention to him the whole game."
Leonard converted 38.1 percent of his three-pointers this season—behind only Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving among the NBA's top scorers—but it's his growing versatility that concerns Ariza. A defender wants to force his man into uncomfortable spaces, but Leonard now operates from everywhere.
"He's really good at one-two dribble pull-ups," Ariza says. "I've noticed that's a part of the game that he's worked on really hard. His mid-range game is A-1."
The only sound strategy? "Try to force him into crowds," Ariza says.
With his two-way aggression, mid-range skills and nimble footwork, Leonard is drawing comparisons to Bryant, Ariza's former Lakers teammate.
"Me and Lou [Williams] had this conversation the other day," Ariza says. "I told him I felt like he has some of like Kobe moves and stuff in him."
Eventually, Ariza simply chuckles and quotes Bzdelik, the Rockets defensive coordinator whose treatise on Leonard always comes back to one simple phrase: "There's no easy answer." — H.B.
SAN ANTONIO — No NBA star is more skillful at drawing shooting fouls than Harden, who attempted a league-high 881 free throws during the regular season and converted 84.7 percent of them.
"If I'm guarding him, it's going to take my all to try and make it difficult for him," Leonard says. "He's a great scorer."
The Spurs had Green check Harden most of the time during the regular season, waiting until late in games to unleash Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
"My basic approach?" Leonard says. "Try to not make anything easy for him. Try to guard him, and don't foul him, and that's basically it. Just try to do the best I can."
And is there any key to keeping the crafty Harden from drawing fouls?
"No, not really," Leonard says. "He's a great player and knows how to use his body very well." — J.A.
HOUSTON — At 6'4", 215 pounds, Eric Gordon gives up three inches and considerable body mass to Leonard, but he will draw the assignment when Ariza needs a breather.
Though he's confident in his ability to wrestle with Leonard, Gordon's approach is to use his own quickness to keep Leonard from driving at all.
"I'm pretty strong," Gordon says. "The thing is, I want to see how many jump shots he can really make. We know he can make jump shots. But when you're mixing up getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line and making jump shots, then you're unstoppable to guard.
"So we'll see how many jump shots he can really make to beat us. We don't want him getting to the basket, because he's a great finisher. You definitely don't want that." — H.B.
SAN ANTONIO — It's easy to get swept up in the gaudy scoring totals. Harden dropped 39 points on the Spurs in their last regular-season game and averaged nearly 30 points in the four-game series. But there was that other gaudy number.
Harden averaged almost 12 assists against the Spurs this season, generating waves of open shots for Gordon and Ariza and Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela—all part of his newly expanded role as the full-time point guard under coach Mike D'Antoni. The degree of difficulty went up this season for every opposing team, even one as elite defensively as the Spurs.
"Mike's done a great job of giving him the ball and letting him run their show, and it's not new to what James did a year ago," says R.C. Buford, the Spurs general manager. "He was creating great shots for their team, but it's clearly the way he plays. He's a great shot-maker for himself, but he also creates great shots for their team." — J.A.
HOUSTON — You can tell when Daryl Morey is truly in awe by the words he chooses. Sure, the Rockets GM might praise a rival player for his dominance or tenacity, but when he invokes words like "efficiency," take notice.
And Morey, a leader in the advanced-stats movement, uses the word often in reference to Leonard.
"He's super-efficient," Morey says. "That's what makes him a big, big challenge."
Leonard averaged 17.7 shots per game in the regular season—more than six fewer than Russell Westbrook, nearly three fewer than Anthony Davis and three fewer than DeMar DeRozan. His true shooting percentage (which accounts for two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) was .611, the seventh-best mark in the league among players who averaged at least 25 points.
"It's not like he gets 10 and takes 10 away from somebody else," D'Antoni says. "No, he's just adding to the mix. Everything he does is adding, whereas some teams, [the star player's shooting] subtracts other guys or knocks other guys out."
The Spurs have given Leonard more latitude to score in isolation and create shots for himself—an exception to their finely honed ball-sharing system—but he uses it judiciously. So yes, he will score in bunches, but he won't break the offense or dominate at the expense of Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol.
As a result, Morey says, "The Spurs are much harder to prepare for" than the Thunder, who fell to the Rockets in five games in the first round.
"Oklahoma City was a great team but much easier to prepare for, because you knew where the tip of the spear was gonna be," Morey says, referring to the ball-dominant Westbrook. "Wherever you push on trying to slow Kawhi down, something else pops up. You're giving up something. It's whack-a-mole." — H.B.
SAN ANTONIO — Over the weekend, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stayed in playoff mode during the break between series, serving up brisk responses during a short session with the media. When a reporter asked whether the matchup with Harden would bring out the best in Leonard, he responded, "I think playing against anybody in the playoffs brings out the best in everybody."
Popovich has previously maintained his disinterest in watching film, though he made one caveat to ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh in December.
"Except for the Rockets," Popovich said. "Harden is ridiculous." — J.A.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.