James on Durant can't solve everything

June, 14, 2012
6/14/12
3:08
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Some expect LeBron James to spend more time guarding Kevin Durant, who dropped a breezy 36 points in Game 1, many on Shane Battier's watch. The reasoning is straightforward. As our Tom Haberstroh points out, James is the Heat's best defender and he did good work on Durant during the regular season:
James barely even guarded Durant in Game 1 even though the OKC star was mostly neutralized this season against the Heat when James was his primary defender. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James guarded Durant on only five plays in Game 1, which led to two missed shots and two turnovers. When guarded by a host of defenders led by Shane Battier, Durant scored 34 points and shot 12-for-18 from the floor without turning the ball over once. In fact, all of Durant's 10 turnovers against the Heat have come while James was the primary defender.

This comes full circle. The Heat were desperate for turnovers and stops in Game 1, but they struggled to get any without James guarding Durant.

Of course, there are any number of reasons why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might want to keep James from guarding Durant, but here are four good ones:
  1. Switches: The Heat want James to be guarding Durant when he looks to score, not when the possession begins. Especially in the second half, Miami switched on almost every screen, so starting James on a player like Westbrook allows him to switch onto Durant whenever those two screen for one another.
  2. Foul Trouble: We saw how tentative Durant became when he was guarding LeBron after picking up a cheap early foul. The Heat needs James to be available and aggressive for as many minutes as possible.
  3. Exhaustion: Asking James to run the offense, score frequently and cover Durant while Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison hit him with burly screens amounts to burning the candle at both ends with a blowtorch.
  4. Team defense: James is a stellar individual defender, but he might be an even better team defender. Starting him on a guy like Perkins doesn't just conserve energy, it allows James to expend that energy helping his teammates. And when there are multiple Thunder players who can breakdown the defense single-handedly, James may be able to prevent more easy shots by playing free safety, sort of like Kevin Garnett does. When James covers Durant, and it's unlikely James would lock down Durant like he did Pierce, he has to stay attached to Durant on the perimeter and cannot slough off to bother Westbrook or Harden.

The fourth point becomes especially significant considering it looks like Russell Westbrook can blow past Dwyane Wade with regularity. That means James might be the only player on the Heat roster who can handle either Westbrook or Durant, though he can only cover one at a time.

Alone, James may be able to dent the Thunder's offensive machine by focusing his efforts more on Kevin Durant. But it will take a total team effort from Miami to throw a wrench in what has been by far the most productive playoff offense since 2005.
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.

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