If the first round of the NBA playoffs was like listening to classical piano on headphones, the second round has been more akin to blasting Metallica through titanic concert speakers. Overtime games, game-winning shots, year-old audits about foul calls, referee dilemmas, and thrilling game after thrilling game have raised the playoffs’ decibel levels. And yet the players who have been at the forefront of this movement are best known for their quiet and calculated brilliance. Through nine playoff games each, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have shown why they’re considered two of the best players in the world. As the contests continue to increase in importance, they keep raising their respective games.
Because the Finals MVP trophy is confined only to a series, there has always been a void when trying to reward the entire postseason’s best player. The idea of a playoff belt works well, in that it can theoretically be passed from player to player throughout all the rounds. So far this year, awarding it to a single player has been a near-impossible task, but the two front-runners are clear: Every time Durant or Leonard seems to gain an edge, the other counters with an equally great performance and takes it right back. It’s a glorious tug-of-war that has been highly entertaining through the first two rounds—and could continue on through the Finals.
Durant’s most memorable moment of the postseason so far may have come from behind a microphone when, after taking only eight shots in a first-round loss to the Clippers, he punctuated an answer to a press conference question by saying, “I’m Kevin Durant … you know who I am.” That response was a turning point—he’d played more like a glorified role player over the series’ first two games, but since that presser, Durant has played like the best player in the world. He’s averaging 35.6 points per game—39.4 per game since he told us who he was—in the playoffs, while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3 on 7.1 attempts. His true shooting percentage is 67 percent.
Leonard, meanwhile, is inviting adoration in his typical way: by not saying much of anything. This quote, from after Game 4 against the Sixers, has probably been his spiciest comment this postseason, which is saying a lot:
Kawhi Leonard, asked about him scoring without looking like he's breaking a sweat: "That's not fair to the Sixers. I'm definitely breaking a sweat."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) May 5, 2019
His banal brand suffices because the novelty of having him back in the playoffs, and his reminding us all why we said he was the next great thing a few years back, is excitement enough. He is scoring 32.3 points per game—38 in the second-round series against the Sixers—and shooting 59 percent from the field, and 50 percent from 3 on six attempts per game. His true shooting percentage is 70 percent, which is a number usually seen by only centers who live near the rim. His most recent highlight came Sunday against Philadelphia, when he pulled up for a 3 with the shot clock expiring and the Raptors up one late in the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid’s outstretched arms may as well have been imitating the prayer-hands emoji rather than contesting. The shot rattled in, and the Raptors would go on to win 101-96.
Durant also had a near-signature playoff moment on Saturday, against the Rockets. Golden State was down seven points heading into the fourth quarter when Durant came out and dropped 10 in less than two minutes. Between the third, fourth, and eventual overtime periods, he had 34 points, and he finished with 46 total on the night—but the Warriors lost 126-121. A few more points would have done the job (and Durant has already scored 50-plus once this postseason), but it would have been like asking your Postmates driver to set your table too. Durant had done more than enough.
Durant’s and Leonard’s numbers have been both gaudy and efficient this postseason, but they’ve been achieved using different styles. Where the 7-foot Durant exhibits a certain fluidity due to his everlasting arms and bounce, Leonard counters with a robotic productivity that’s difficult to comprehend. You can see the work Leonard is doing to make the game conform to him; Durant looks virtually effortless. Those stylistic differences put them on different sections of the menu (Leonard, for example, is more of a rebounder, while Durant averages more assists), but what tethers them together is the ingredients they use. Both have an affinity for the midrange that is becoming increasingly unique in a 3-point-heavy world. Durant has made 50 percent of his 8.4 midrange attempts per game, and Leonard has made 60 percent of his 4.4 attempts (16 of 23 in the second round); both are top-three in the postseason in that metric, and each is averaging at least 13 2-point field goal attempts per game. Math says the 3 is worth more than the 2; Durant and Leonard say, “I’ll take whatever shot I want and make it.”
Kawhi's playoff shot chart:— Justin Phan (@jphanned) May 5, 2019
Averaging 32.3 points per game on 59/50/86 shooting. pic.twitter.com/DTyAYb1UhG
Both have the ability to seemingly create acres of space with one dribble or a single step. Their body control is impeccable and allows them to glide through the air—it’s like they’re able to pause gravity for a second when taking a shot, as if to admire the view from up there. But in the process, they’re also ensuring that no defender has a chance at disrupting their shot. It’s real estate that only certain players can occupy, hang time that only a special kind of superstar can manufacture.
When defenders try to contest their shots, they’re usually a step behind or already dropping back down to the ground when Leonard and Durant reach their peaks, which makes for a weak contest. It’s notable that P.J. Tucker and Ben Simmons haven’t exactly played poor defense in their respective series; Durant and Leonard have just been that good. Describing them as “unstoppable” in this case is not an exaggeration; unless defenders want to foul them endlessly and put them at the free throw line, there are very few options at their disposal.
On defense, Durant’s and Leonard’s same strengths apply and make them arguably the best two-way players in the game. Durant can guard anyone because of his suffocating length; Leonard defends by pestering his opponent, an action that’s spearheaded by his supersize hands. Trying to shoot over Durant or dribble around Leonard is asking for trouble.
But while Durant and Leonard have been scoring in droves, their performances have not always amounted to victories. Durant’s now dropped 45 and 46 in losses during these playoffs, and Leonard’s 35 and 33 points in games 2 and 3 of the Sixers’ series were not enough either. What’s perhaps most interesting about these two is that they both play in a way that transcends hero ball. They each rarely make the wrong decision, and it never seems like they’re shooting their team out of a game, even if they might take close to 30 shots (both are averaging around 20 attempts per game this postseason). And yet that doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t call upon this do-it-all mode when needed, like Durant did in the second half of Saturday’s game or like Kawhi did Sunday. Should the operation go wrong, at least in these playoffs, it’s been impossible to put the blame on them. They are playing bulletproof basketball.
If there’s a belt to give out to the best player in the postseason so far, it should be split in half between the two of them. If they both advance to the next round, the tug-of-war between their individual feats will continue and could even potentially spill into the Finals, where they would go head to head. And let me leave you with an even scarier thought: Both players will be free agents this summer. While Durant is rumored to be considering joining the Knicks and Leonard’s name has been tossed around as a candidate to sign with the Clippers, there’s a chance—however small—that they could be teammates next year.