The LeBron James-Kevin Durant "Striving for Greatness" tour has come full circle, setting the stage for an NBA Finals superstar showdown of epic proportions.
Here they are, the 2012 NBA MVP in James going head-to-head with Durant, winner of the league scoring title for the third consecutive year. Will the silky-smooth Durant outmatch the rough-and-tumble James? Can King James play the role of both scorer and facilitator? How will Dwyane Wade factor into the equation?
Length vs. Strength
No knock on Durant, but James clearly has the edge in terms of strength and power in this matchup.
James—an elite defender in his own right—is expected to match up defensively against Durant for most of this series, especially in the fourth quarter. Based on Miami's defensive strategy during its regular season games against the Thunder, Durant will feel the heat as soon as he touches the basketball.
Per Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated:
"Miami played Durant to pass and drive in the regular season, pressuring him well beyond the three-point arc and trapping him when he popped off screens. Durant dribbled into a season-high nine turnovers in one game and dished a season-high eight assists in the other."
If James tightens up on Durant from the perimeter and beyond, you better believe KD will use his length and superb athleticism to attempt to drive by James.
At 6'8" and 250 pounds, James is a physical specimen. Taking him off the dribble will require a powerful first step and superb body control on Durant's part.
To enhance core strength for complete control of his lengthy frame (Durant is listed at 6'9" with a 75-inch wingspan), the Durantula performs multi-planar movements like the Med Ball Lunge on Core Board during his off-season workouts.
The exercise replicates the unstable environment Durant encounters when driving around a defender, just as he did when closing out the Heat in Game One of the Finals last night.
"This trains him to pull himself out of a difficult position like when he gets knocked off balance in a game," says Dwight Daub, director of athletic performance for the Thunder. "It's all strengthening within the different planes that he's going to be involved with in basketball."
LeBron the Facilitator
James may be the only player in the world who catches criticism for his unselfish style of play. Nevertheless, he's one of the league's elite scorers and simply cannot rely solely on his teammates to produce the points needed to outscore the Thunder.
The Thunder will surely pack the paint with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, the league-leader in blocked shots this season with a staggering 3.65 per game average. Will their paint presence deter James from attacking the basket?
James, who is one of the league's underrated passers, is more likely to drive the lane and either look for contact or draw the Thunder's help defense and then hit an open teammate with an LBJ-patented chest or bounce pass.
"You never want to put a teammate at a disadvantage," James told us. "With any type of pass, you want to put him in a good position, so he can just catch and shoot."
If the perimeter players for the Heat can hit their outside shots in the early going, count on James's assist total to rise closer to the 6.2 he averaged during the regular season.
And although their half-court offense was effective in the final games against the Celtics, James and the Heat must continue to push the fast break against Oklahoma City. Sure, the Thunder have speed across the floor, but the Heat's four fast-break points in Game One simply will not suffice—not for a Heat team that averaged nearly 12 fast-break points in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If the Heat can execute its fast-break offense, you can be sure that James will be facilitating with his signature one-hand catch and overhand pass to a streaking D-Wade.
Don't Forget About Dwyane
Behind the mega-matchup of LeBron vs. KD is the player who led the Heat to its first and only NBA championship, in 2006.
The Boston Celtics held Dwyane Wade in check for most of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which he averaged 21.4 points and 5.7 rebounds, shot 44.4 percent and averaged 3.2 turnovers in the seven-game series.
Although Wade struggled from the field, he contributed with some clutch plays both defensively and on the glass. The 2006 Finals MVP is leading the Heat in blocked shots this postseason (1.4 per game), and his explosive first step and leaping prowess enabled him to soar above the Celtics to bring down several clutch offensive boards.
The mark of all great players is the ability to contribute in other areas of the game when they lose their scoring touch. For Wade, this means continuing to rebound on both ends of the floor, winning the loose ball battles and preventing the Thunder backcourt—namely, Russell Westbrook—from getting to the rim.
The source of Wade's late-season, lower-body burst: his off-season superset training, which combines an explosive with an endurance movement. For example, he will superset a Depth Box Jump with a Slideboard Dynamic Hip/Glute Stretch.
Says Tim Grover, Wade's performance coach and owner of ATTACK Athletics: "We do this toward the end of the workout when Dwyane is fatigued, because we know how explosive he is at the beginning of the game. But we want him to be more explosive than anyone else out there at the end of the game."
Stay tuned to STACK.com for more special coverage of the NBA Finals.
Photos: Danny Vega
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock