On one side was Kevin Durant, the most devastating scorer in the NBA
On the other side was Kawhi Leonard, the most effective one-on-one defender in the league.
The way these two went after each other Thursday night, there should have been a bell ringing after each quarter.
Durant posted a decisive victory in the battle, scoring a season-high 51 points on 58.1-percent shooting, to Leonard’s season-high 37 points on 58.3-percent shooting.
The war was, however, won by Leonard and the Raptors, as they hung a 131-128 overtime loss on the Durant and the Warriors.
As good as this Warriors-Raptors war was – and it was nothing short of fantastic – the Durant-Leonard contest was downright riveting. Neither man blinked and both were relentlessly savage while engaging in the kind of mano a mano conflict rarely seen in the regular season.
“It’s what the league is about,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told reporters at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. “You get guys going at it, KD had 51 and put them on his back, made two huge 3s down the stretch, and Kawhi made some big shots. It was a good, fun game.”
Durant has a way of summoning something extra when facing the toughest of challenges, which explains why he has outplayed LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and come away with the MVP award for each series.
Facing Leonard generates a similar affect, with Durant finding competitive passion that is utterly feral.
“I just think I have to do what’s required at this point,” Durant said. “There's going to be some games where we have a great team game going, where we can beat teams with the flow of our offence, from moving, moving our bodies and moving the ball. And, there’s going to be some games where I need to go get buckets.
“And tonight we were down early, we were down big and I tried to be aggressive and go get a bucket.”
With Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, as the primary defender, Durant got 18 buckets from the field, including four 3-pointers. He also made 11-of-12 from the line.
“You’ve just got to stay even-keeled, just go to the next possession,” Leonard said. “He did down the stretch and he made some big shots to push us to overtime.”
Which is in line with Durant’s work over the past four games, during which he averaged 44 points on 54.1-percent shooting. With 44, 49 and 51 points over his last three games, Durant topped the 40-point mark in three consecutive games for the first time in his career.
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With Stephen Curry and Draymond Green out, the Warriors needed scoring from other sources. When those sources aren’t enough, Durant has been filling the void.
“It took him a couple of games to get used to different type of lineups; it’s very different,” Andre Iguodala said. “He’s finding a good flow right now. He always been a worker on his game, and he’s the type of guy that if things aren’t going his way he just wants to spend more time in the gym. He’s been working and it’s been showing.”
The presence of Durant also seemed to inspire Leonard. He had been playing very well, but now he was staring at Durant, someone against whom he has battled many times over the years. The two worked out together a few times last summer in Los Angeles.
“He seemed (to have) a little bit more pep in his step,” Nurse said. “A little bit more elevation on those pull-up jumpers; he had been short on some of those and kind of flat-footed, I thought. Right from the beginning he looked like he had a little bit more juice going tonight.”
Credit Durant. Credit Leonard. Credit the schedule-maker for putting these two on national TV.
“Just playing against him his first year in the league and seeing where he is now is ridiculous, on both ends of the court,” Durant said of Leonard. “He’s someone I have total respect for and I just feel like Kawhi walks into every game feeling like he has to do that no matter what.”
The Durant-Leonard battle deserves many encores. Let’s hope there is one on Dec. 12, when the Raptors visit Oracle Arena to face the Warriors.
Let’s hope there is another six months later, in a best-of-seven series.