PHOENIX — The 2017 Western Conference finals were primed for a showdown between two 60-win teams, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, with a starry matchup pitting Kawhi Leonard against Kevin Durant.
Leonard sprained his ankle in the first half of Game 1 when landing on Warriors center Zaza Pachulia‘s foot, and the great clash was over before it started. (Golden State went on to win the NBA championship that season.)
Two years later, another potential classic between the superstar forwards was thwarted. Durant suffered a devastating torn Achilles tendon early in the only game he played in during the NBA Finals in 2019, when the Warriors were facing Leonard’s Toronto Raptors, the eventual champions.
Is 2023 the year the game’s fans finally get to witness this tantalizing duel?
Sunday’s first-round Game 1 between the No. 4-seeded Phoenix Suns and the fifth-seeded LA Clippers hinted the answer might be yes. The seeds of an instant classic between the two future Hall of Famers, who have four Finals MVPs between them, were sown during an epic fourth quarter in the Clippers’ 115-110 victory.
The game was tied at 81 all to start the fourth. Leonard was guarding Durant. Durant was guarding Leonard. No eye contact. No words. Straight competition. What the NBA playoffs are supposed to be about.
Here’s how the first glorious minutes of the Durant-Leonard fourth-quarter matchup went:
Leonard three-point play, drawing a foul on Durant on a pure strength drive
Durant with one of his sweet 3-pointers over the top of Leonard’s fingers
Leonard with one of his trademark midrange jumpers
To understand the rarity of this matchup, Leonard and Durant had faced off against each other only once since the disappointment in 2019 — during a lone regular-season game in February 2021.
But Sunday, Leonard was the primary defender down the stretch (which was especially the case with Paul George out) against Durant, contributing to a strategy that walled him off from the rest of the Suns’ offense.
Durant finished with 27 points, including 10 in the fourth, later making another 3-pointer over Leonard. But Durant took just a single shot in the final six minutes as the Clippers pulled out an impressive win — one in which they were +250 underdogs entering the series, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Leonard put forth a masterpiece with 38 points in 42 minutes.
“It’s great. [Durant’s] an all-time player right there. Hall of Famer. You know, that’s what it’s about,” Leonard said. “You have an opportunity to play great, and you just want the opportunity; and if it’s win, lose or draw, it’s about giving your best out there, and you’re able to play against the best.”
The straight-up matchup between the two might not happen for large stretches during the rest of the series, starting with Tuesday’s Game 2 in Phoenix (10 p.m. ET).
The Clippers had an elaborate game plan ready to deal with Durant, rotating different players on him and bringing help defense from unexpected angles, with Leonard only getting a small portion.
The Suns used Torrey Craig as the primary defender on Leonard, and Durant only got small doses, still picking up two fouls in doing so, with both drawn by Leonard. But it is likely the superstar pairing will return in potential high-leverage situations during the series.
“I think both teams are trying to do the same thing: You want to save their energy,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But you also don’t want to get in the way of greatness.”
Leonard has the early edge, with the Clippers’ defensive wrinkles contributing to Durant going scoreless in the first quarter, part of a flat Phoenix start. Durant also went scoreless in the third quarter.
That unexpected Durant output is what is leading the Clippers to expect a very different Durant in Game 2, perhaps fueled by the strong showing of his opposite superstar from Game 1.
“[He’ll be] aggressive, more aggressive, in trying to get to his spots,” Clippers coach Ty Lue, who also coached the Cleveland Cavaliers against Durant’s Warriors in those 2017 playoffs, said Monday after his team’s practice. “But we’ll be able to prepare and be able to adjust.”
A true back-and-forth — with one-upmanship, shot-making and high pressure — it could be one of the highlights of the 2022-23 NBA postseason for both teams and fans alike.
While neither star is known for being demonstrative or falling into personal battles on the court, there is no denying they understand the moment.
“Just got to keep having fun with it,” Leonard said. “It’s good. It’s playoff basketball.”