OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was right after the 2014 NBA Finals -- featuring the San Antonio Spurs taking down the Miami Heat in five dominant games -- and Kevin Durant was debating with someone on Twitter about Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. At the time, Durant's position was that George, a good friend, was better. No big deal, apples and oranges, to each their own.
But it was Durant's reasoning that drew attention.
"He doing work like this because of the system," Durant tweeted about Leonard. "Put Paul George on the Spurs and what would happen?”
It was headline heaven. "Durant calls Kawhi Leonard a system player" popped up everywhere. Meanwhile, Leonard had won the Finals MVP award by dominating the Heat on both ends of the floor. It was seen as a slight. As disrespect. As a lack of recognition for the budding stardom of Leonard.
Shortly after the tweet went out and the reaction revved up, Durant attempted to clarify his point with a Facebook post.
“This the last time I’m gonna talk about this," he wrote. "I did not hate on Kawhi Leonard, quite honestly if you knew me or been around me, you would see how excited I was for such a young humble guy. But the world loves conflict I see. I really gave major props to Coach Pop and the whole staff for putting those guys in great positions to be successful. I’ve realized you can’t say anything about a champion so if I hurt anybody’s feeling I apologize (I really don’t) but you get my drift.”
What does this have to do with anything happening in March 2016? Well, following the Oklahoma City Thunder's blowout win over the Utah Jazz on Thursday, Durant was asked about his matchup looming with Leonard on Saturday.
"He's definitely grown as a player," Durant said. Then, unprompted, he joked, "He's not a system player."
Durant shifted his eyes a bit to make sure everyone was in on the joke as a few light chuckles bounced around.
"I know you guys like to throw that term around," he continued, "but he's just grown so much as a player. I have to be locked in every play. He can shoot the midrange, he can post up, he can hit the 3, he can dribble and he's just grown so much. Defensively, probably one of the best guys in the league. It's fun when you get that matchup at the small forward. There are so many great guys, but he's one of the guys in that top tier."
Hard to be much more complimentary of an opposing player than that, right?
Asked if he regrets the 2014 tweet -- which he deleted shortly after -- Durant said, "No, I don't. At the time, I didn't even call him a system player. I just said Paul George was better. I like Paul George better as a player. I can be a fan of the game too. One of my guys was debating with me, saying [Leonard] was better than Paul George at the time, and I didn't think so.
"I'm not taking it back. I said the system is the reason why he's out there; Pop put him in great positions to be the player that he is. No, I don't regret it at all. That was three years ago. If he hasn't grown, that's on him. But he's grown as a player, but yeah, I don't take it back."
Controversy or not, what's been decided is that (A) Leonard has flourished in San Antonio, whether it be because of the system, the developmental structure of the organization or whatever you want to credit and (B) he's maybe the only player in the league that can actually challenge Durant defensively. In the opening game of the season, Leonard, who of course is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, stuffed Durant's jumper, a rare feat for any defender. It caught everyone's attention, including Durant's.
Leonard has done as well on Durant as can be expected. He uses his length, contests jumpers and most importantly doesn't foul (or at least doesn't get called for them). Durant still gets his: He's averaging 25.0 points and 4.0 assists in the two games against the Spurs this season, but he has only hit 38.6 percent of his shots. It's one of the great individual matchups in the game, arguably the world's best scorer against arguably the world's best defender, both playing the same position.
The third installment is set for Saturday, with a fourth to come on the regular season's final day. And potentially, if we're all so fortunate, four to seven more sometime in May.