Kevin Durant is hard to defend. No, that’s putting it lightly; guarding KD is damn-near impossible. There’s a reason – should he maintain his current pace – that Durant will become just the second player in NBA history to average at least 29 points per game while reaching the hallowed 50/40/90 threshold. And, basically, it’s because Larry Bird is the other player on that two-man list and Durant – at the ripe old age of 24(!) – has established himself as the type of all-time talent The Legend was.
So it shocks when Durant struggles at all these days, let alone when he’s on the biggest of stages like Thursday against the Miami Heat. LeBron James and company, when engaged, are one of the NBA’s best defensive teams, aggressively blitzing and scrambling their way to the controlled havoc that forces rushed shots and turnovers. But Durant, Oklahoma City’s 4-1 series loss not withstanding, made mincemeat of the Heat in last season’s Finals, scoring 30.8 points per game on a crazy 54.8% from the field. And this wasn’t the middling, careless, sometimes lazy Heat defense we’ve seen on occasion this season, either.
‘Struggle’ is a relative term, of course. Durant missed his first six shots against Miami and had just two first-half field goals, but still ended the game with 40 points on 12-of-24 from the field due to a 22-point fourth quarter eruption when the game was out of realistic reach. And just as unsurprising as Durant’s eventual breakout was that it came late in the game as both teams made adjustments, when he was checked by a defender other than James. See for yourself.
James began the game guarding Durant before three first-half fouls led to Erik Spoelstra going elsewhere for coverage on the league’s leading scorer. The chief difference when James checked him compared to Dwyane Wade/Shane Battier? The difficulty with which Durant was able to act as an on-ball screener. In the first two sequences of the video above, James sees a Durant pick coming and gets between KD and the ball to disallow it. The immediate results thereafter are telling: Durant and Russell Westbrook are left to create some 30-plus feet from the basket on the left wing with no forward momentum. Big win for Miami.
In the final two bits of video, Durant is defended by Wade and Battier. They pay little mind to Durant sweeping nonchalantly (is that a word) across the middle to set a ball screen, and the resulting effects are as you’d expect from an unmolested PNR involving two devastating offensive forces – a pair of high percentage looks. Wade/Battier lack James’ size and strength, but there’s still no justification to so carelessly allowing Durant and his team the action they seek. Crowding KD and refusing to give him space is crucial. LeBron did both and Miami reaped the benefits; Wade and Battier did neither and their team yielded open jumpers.
Durant has improved immeasurably moving with out the ball over the years, and catch-and-shoot opportunities as he weaves through and around picks from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are a staple of his offensive repertoire. Miami knows that, obviously, and defends against it by often aggressively over-helping the man guarding Durant and almost ignoring the screener. The first segment in the video above is a perfect illustration of that tactic; before Durant makes the catch, Rashard Lewis leaves Ibaka to jump his eventual catch. James is a small step behind Lewis, and a pocket-pass to Ibaka is there as LeBron recovers, but it would need to be of the quickest and most accurate variety – the type of next-level stuff Durant is still learning. James recovers with high hands, and Durant’s tough look to Ibaka is null and void. From there, things break down and the action is over.
Perkins sets what amounts to a sort of flare screen for Durant in the next two clips, and Miami doesn’t defend them with the same decisiveness. James gets caught on Perkins in the first one, Battier – for reasons unknown considering Perk’s chances of successfully catching and finishing on the move – is slow to react on the help and Durant gets what’s essentially a wide-open catch and shoot three. Battier needed to take a page from Lewis’ book and jump hard out to Durant as he came off the Perkins screen; the only reason not to is threat of the roll man, and Perk, again, presents almost none whatsoever. Battier does better in the succeeding instance, but still doesn’t take the preferred path of Lewis – aggression, aggression, aggression! – and thus gives Durant a makeable look.
We’re back to a pin-down in the final clip, but Bosh has taken the place of Lewis and it shows. As Ibaka comes to set the screen, Bosh is reluctant to leave him and hound Durant on the catch. And not surprisingly, he pays the price, as his angle is too narrow and Durant easily dribbles around him for a dunk. It’s debatable what Miami’s actual game plan was when it comes to defending Durant in off-ball screen situations. But given the success of Lewis’ hyper-activity, don’t be shocked if the Heat more fully commit to a similar strategy should these teams meet in the Finals.
Durant enjoyed varying degrees of success as a screen-setter and moving without the ball against Miami, and on a macro level that’s how he performed as creator in a pick-and-roll, too. But in the video above there are easy fixes to what keeps the stalled sequences from doing so, notably the screens set by Westbrook and Perkins in the first two clips.
In the initial set, Durant gets a relatively clean look at a three from the top of the circle as James recovers to contest just a tad late. Watch Westbrook, though; if he holds his screen and sets his feet a split longer instead of bailing right after making contact with James, Durant has wide open look. And because Norris Cole’s hedge is lazy and he turns his back to the ball, Westbrook would have better chance of getting the ball from KD as the roll man, too. But Westbrook isn’t sound and the Thunder suffer the relative consequences – this is Durant we’re talking about, after all – of mildly contested three-point attempt. The next play endures a similarly ineffective pick, but for different reasons. Perkins, beating a dead horse, is not a finisher. Why he slips his de-facto screen so quickly is anyone’s guess, especially because it’s so easy for James and Battier to seamlessly switch on PNRs involving Durant and a Thunder big man. If Perkins is stationary and does more than simply getting in the way of Battier then heading to the post, he puts James in a much tougher position. As is, Miami immediately switches, Durant has no angle to attack and reverts to a reverse dribble. Set the pick, Perk; from an actual basketball standpoint, you offer nothing more offensively when you’re out there.
In the third clip, Wade is rightfully frustrated. Kevin Martin loops from the corner in Durant’s direction, feigning a screen. Instead of setting a pick, he runs right passed Durant and provokes a quick show from Ray Allen and the tiniest of missteps from Wade. Wade sees it, though, and realizes he’s on an island with Durant on the left wing. In this case, he expects help from a big man on the strong side so he can force Durant to go left. Chris Anderson is in a perfect spot to give it, too, with Nick Collison offering no threat in the corner and Lewis in perfect position to help the helper. But he’s late on it, only moving in the proper direction as Durant completes his second dribble. And-1. No surprise, and Wade’s exasperated reaction describes Anderson’s mistake better than blog words ever could.
The final instance is a good example of the merits of a small-small PNR, especially when that first “small” is a player with the size and skill of Kevin Durant. It’s much like the first set in the video, with Westbrook coming to set a screen on James. He doesn’t hold his pick and get a big chunk of James here, either, but it matters not because Cole’s mistake is far bigger. Cole, unaccustomed to playing the role of hedger in this situation, doesn’t jump far enough out to stop the momentum of Durant’s dribble. And just as bad as ceding KD’s rhythm is disallowing James the space to recover as quickly as necessary; Cole is in LeBron’s way because’s he’s too shallow, and James tries to make up for it by opening his stance, crossing his feet and taking a wider angle to recovery. But Durant sees his imbalance, crosses over from left to right and gets a (very difficult but easy-looking) layup. Durant’s too good for this type of small but ultimately damning mistake from Cole, but the point guard is treading unfamiliar water here. We constantly pine for PNRs with Durant/Westbrook, and Cole’s misstep is one of the endless reasons why.
Think back to the first half of Thursday’s game and the play of Durant: despite his pronounced early labors, did you really expect them to continue all game long? Of course not, but KD got going not because he hit an absurd number of tough shots. Miami just defended him differently, with players other than James handling him individually and without the same consistent, team-wide assault of over-helping.
There’s so much for these teams to learn on both ends of the floor from Miami’s mid-February win with an eye towards June. But, bet the Thunder and Heat pay special heed to why Durant was so deficient in the game’s first stanza and why he was so dominant in the second one. And, simply and interestingly, it’s just not that complicated, which should make for a fascinating chess match next time Durant, James and the rest face off.
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