Kevin Durant: Keeping the Warriors on Track

With an imminent Finals rematch against the Cavs ahead of them, this year’s Warriors won’t be playing the same brand of basketball in this year’s Finals.

I remember discussing with a friend in college that Kevin Durant is this era’s tell-your-kid-about player. Like Dr. J for my father, Durant is probably the player I will recount with meticulous detail the most while explaining this era of basketball to my kids. Because when he entered the league, he was a type of player no one had ever seen before, like The Doctor, The Big O, and other quote-unquote unicorns.

The next generation of basketball fans won’t ever have the full context of how he truly revolutionized the game because he is one of the unique players that YouTube clips don’t do his game justice. Due to his Swiss army knife of ways to score, he can control the style and tempo of the game, elements that are not easily discernible in mere six-second clips.

At almost seven feet and with a wingspan as long as the Bay Bridge, Durant attacks the basket, like a renowned surgeon making sure every action is intently accurate and efficient. Except, Durant’s tools aren’t scalpels and knives; instead, he routinely utilizes his turnaround fade-away to the baseline, his quick release at the elbow, and his dynamic passing ability off the dribble.

When reading his opponent, he does so as if he is a crafty counter-puncher by feeling out his opponent’s defensive strategy until he determines the best method of attack. When formulating how to best approach his opponent, his internal algorithm helps identify and uncover the most vulnerable part of the defense, resulting in scoring opportunities not only for himself but also his teammates. For Durant, scoring the basketball is not purely an athletic endeavor; it is an art form that is being carried out by a savant that the game has never witnessed before.

Whether playing in the half court or in an up-and-down track meet, Durant is one of the few players at his size that is comfortable playing in any style the game presents him. This versatility was on full display in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Durant ended the game with 38 points on 15-for-26 shooting, but his play in the first quarter truly illustrates his ability to read and react to what his opponent is offering while attacking using the appropriate skillset.

In the first twelve minutes, Durant scored 13 points, which included four free-throws, two jumpers, and a three-pointer. This collage of scoring encompasses some of the strongest components of his offensive capabilities. His first two points came off a high on-ball screen set by Pachulia, which forced Hayward and Gobert to switch defensive responsibilities. Retreating to the paint while letting-up ground, Gobert, in that situation, could not defend Durant coming downhill, therefore, doing what he can by protecting the rim. In response, Durant pulled up from the right elbow, a location Durant is extremely comfortable and efficient shooting from. The Warriors do a good job getting him multiple shots from this location a game by setting down-screens and allowing Durant to curl off.

Figure 1: Kevin Durant Shot Heatmap (Source: NBAsavant.com)

Later in the quarter, Durant, again, managed to get a jumper from the right elbow by pulling-up over Neto. Using his Dirk-esque fade-way, Durant was able to take advantage of another switch by getting a comfortable shot in rhythm where he had already connected from. In both of these situations, Durant was able to select his best weapon of attack based on what was presented to him.

In the final minute of the quarter, the last two points for the Warriors was a Durant layup, which was the direct result of an outlet pass that he took three-quarters of the court. Durant is one of the few players at his size that can execute this type of play. In fact, on his way to the basket, he takes two dribbles in the half court, with one being for an in-and-out to eliminate Rodney Hood from the play. This play is another example of how intelligent a basketball player Durant is. Understanding that there is less 40 seconds on the clock, Durant analyzes the locations of the defenders and his teammates on the floor; once he realizes that this is an advantageous scoring opportunity, he makes a beeline for the hoop in order to give his team a two-for-one.

Last July, GM Bob Myers and Head Coach Steve Kerr didn’t camp out on Long Island just to recruit last off-season’s most talented free agent. Understanding not only Durant’s dynamic play-making ability but also his intangibles that dictate the pace and style of play, Myers and Kerr specifically targeted the only free agent in that or upcoming summers that could add true value to this already talented roster. Durant is one of a few players in this league that has a gravitational pull on defenses, therefore, creating larger scoring windows for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

In Game 3, Durant’s early offensive performance created additional spacing for his teammates. In the Warriors offense, Durant consistently works the baseline until he catches the ball in the short corner. Knowing how many tools he has in his arsenal, the defense will send additional help to back-up the primary defender. Being the player he is, Durant routinely identifies the open teammate and uses his height to his advantage to whip a cross-court pass either to the opposite wing, strong-side elbow, or cutting guard. (In the Warriors upcoming games, pay attention how they work the ball into the short corner for their bigs. Then, notice the additional action taking place at the high-post and weak-side. This will usually lead to a high percentage shot.)

Ultimately, Durant was the difference maker in Game 3 — a game that would have most likely resulted in a loss in last year’s playoffs for the Warriors. Instead, this year’s team was able to fight off defeat in Utah and end the series in four games. It’s games like this one that truly highlights Durant’s value because he is another playmaker and creates a great deal for his teammates. The Warriors specifically sought out Durant for these types of performance. It is safe to say that he removed any doubt against the Jazz, limited the number of minutes this team needed play this series, and helped keep this team on pace with another team in the Eastern Conference.

As the Warriors progress deeper into the playoffs, Durant’s performances, such as this one, will need to happen more frequently, especially against the Spurs and, potentially, the Cavs. Consistent offensive production from him will minimize the poor showings from the likes of Thompson and Green. Additionally, Durant will continue to draw extra attention from defenses forcing teams to constantly shade and help his way. If Durant keeps this up, he will ultimately become the sole focal point of the Warriors offense, with everyone playing off of him — something that never truly took place in Oklahoma City.

If the Warriors raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of these playoffs, Game 3 against the Jazz, and similar ones, won’t be remembered by even the most die-hard of fans. However, these are games that are important in title runs even though they don’t add to a player’s lore and legacy.