The last time Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant faced each other in the playoffs, the anticipated showdown during the 2019 NBA Finals lasted all of 11 minutes 57 seconds.
Then Durant felt the “pop” as his Achilles’ tendon ruptured. He was 30, and didn’t play another NBA game for 18 months.
Two years later, a 30-year-old Leonard was dribbling during the 2021 postseason when he felt the twinge in his right knee. The tear of his anterior cruciate ligament would sideline him for 15 months.
On Sunday in Phoenix, Durant and Leonard will meet again in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series involving the No. 4-seed Suns and No. 5 Clippers, and each will be at full strength to begin a playoff matchup that — considering the doubt their injuries cast on their ability to return to all-NBA form, not to mention starting this season in entirely different conferences — was never guaranteed to be seen again.
Durant isn’t just a facsimile of his former-MVP self. This season, he became the first player in the NBA’s 76-year history to make at least 55% of his field goals, 40% of his three-pointers and 90% of his free throws. Injuries limited him to 47 games but not his effect on success. Starting in December with the Brooklyn Nets and since joining Phoenix at the trade deadline, teams are 21-1 with Durant in the lineup.
The Clippers have guarded the league’s best, from Stephen Curry to Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell, and “I respect all those guys,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said. “But he’s in a different category.
“KD is different than all those guys. Those guys are great, but KD is KD.”
Amid what Leonard has called a “two-year process” to feel fully recovered, he averaged 23.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 41.6% three-point shooting during his 52-game regular season despite a knee setback and ankle injury that cost him much of the first two months. Since Jan. 8, Leonard — a career 38% three-point shooter — has averaged 27.3 points while shooting 46.8% from deep. That dependability has taken on even greater importance with All-Star teammate Paul George out for at least the start of the first round.
“I think it all starts with Kawhi,” Suns guard Terrence Ross said of guarding the Clippers. “And trickles down from there.”
Clippers teammates, including Norman Powell who played with Leonard during Toronto’s 2019 title run, said calmness amid the postseason crucible is what separates Leonard.
“He has that reputation when in big games he’s going to step up,” Batum said.
No one would have predicted that — at least offensively — at the time of the first playoff meeting in 2012 involving Durant and Leonard. In his fifth season, Durant was already a nearly 7-foot scorer who, with the reach of a crane, could get his shot any time he wanted. His role as a No. 1 scoring option has never changed in his 16 seasons. A then-San Antonio rookie, Leonard earned his playing time alongside Hall of Fame teammates primarily because of his defense. He averaged just seven shots in the series, using a jump shot whose form was refined from his time at San Diego State.
Becoming the caliber of scorer who, within seven seasons, was averaging 30.5 points during the 2019 playoffs that ended in a title against Durant’s Golden State Warriors, took a career transformation that Chauncey Billups, who worked out with Leonard in Las Vegas before the 2011 NBA draft, called wholly unexpected.
“This guy is one of the best to ever play the game at this point,” Billups, now the Portland Trail Blazers coach, told the Times in September. “None of us seen that in him before he got drafted. Thought he was going to be a really good player, he’s going to maybe be an All-Star one or two years in his career. We didn’t see a generational type of dude. Didn’t see Hall of Fame — I didn’t, and anybody who tells you that is going to be lying to you. So talk about somebody that’s went and worked and earned it, it’s Kawhi Leonard.”
Said Durant, to reporters in Phoenix on Wednesday: “He didn’t have this role that he has now of being a superstar, so I’ve just seen his development over time and it’s been cool to watch. He’s been tough to play against.”
Durant’s evolution has come in his ability to score in increasingly efficient ways, said Russell Westbrook, the Clippers guard who played eight seasons with Durant in Oklahoma City. In Phoenix, Durant’s usage rate and his scoring in transition opportunities has dipped below career-average levels. Meanwhile, his shooting accuracy, and the share of his baskets that have come off of assists, has exceeded them as he plays off of teammates Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
“He’s probably one of the best scorers I’ve seen, just can score at ease and look so effortless,” Westbrook said.
Given six days to prepare before Sunday’s series opener, players and coaches in Phoenix and Los Angeles described a similar strategy for slowing down, if not neutralizing entirely, each team’s top options.
“We gotta crowd him, we gotta be physical, we gotta bump ’em,” Powell said. “Try to make it as uncomfortable as possible.”
Expect the same treatment toward Leonard from the Suns. And expect a star duel that was never destined to materialize again. Durant grouped Westbrook and Leonard together when saying he was looking forward to a matchup featuring future Hall of Famers.
“Guys that we’ve seen grow up in the league and still playing elite ball in what, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th year? You know, these dudes getting old,” Durant said, smiling. “So to get an opportunity to compete against the best is always fun.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.