Kevin Durant has improved greatly in every year of his short tenure as an NBA player. We’ve seen him win the scoring title three times in five years, take his team to a Conference Finals and now he’s performing in the NBA Finals.
When he came into the league he was a prolific scorer, but one thing that he had a problem with was catching the ball at a certain spot. He has become a great catch and shoot player, but in crunch time it gets harder for him to do because the defense plays more physically than at any point in the game. This physicality can lead to more difficult shots if you let it happen.
Durant would take screens and his man would deny him his position instead of letting him take the screen cleanly. He’s too big to use screens like, say, a Ray Allen would and run in multiple directions. When Durant is off of the ball its usually one or two ball fakes and he goes. He would slip screens and get pushed 30 feet away from the basket. When the ball was supposed to be delivered to him he would get it but it wouldn’t be in position for a comfortable, quality shot.
Below is a missed three from two years ago late in a game vs the Portland Trail Blazers. You can see here that Durant was denied of his initial position and was forced into making a difficult catch for a difficult shot that was at least 28 feet away from the basket. Late in games you don’t want that kind of a look. Here, take a look and see for yourself.
When this happens you lose valuable tics off of the clock and also you lose your shot’s quality. Though Durant has always been an accountable scorer, this is where he would lose his efficiency late in games. Last season his field goal percentage dropped a full five percentage points because of his inability to establish key positioning to score crucial buckets. During this year’s regular season, his clutch field goal percentage is 39%. That shows us that he didn’t improve in that area, but in fact got worse.
During the playoffs, however, Durant’s clutch field goal percentage has increased to 60%. During this stretch, Durant has had many awesome fourth quarters. Most recently, Durant hung up 17 on the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter of game one during these NBA Finals. The Thunder won 105-94 largely because of Durant’s large effort during this quarter. The quality of Durant’s shots were sensational and that catapulted the Thunder into the winner’s circle on Tuesday night.
During the fourth quarter, Durant was 6-10 and got 17 points on those shots. He was a being of efficiency from another planet; what he did last night was un-human. The truly astonishing part of his performance was that he only took four shots outside of 20 feet. The other six were inside 19 feet and he only missed one. He showed perfect patience as four points came off of transition buckets. One was a putback on a jumper that Russell Westbrook missed, the other was a dunk off of a steal in transition.
There were three plays that stood out to me and show, perfectly, how Durant has learned to play with physicality late in games.
First there’s this one.
Durant comes off of a pindown screen by Thabo Sefalosha. Shane Battier, Durant’s man, and Dwyane Wade, Thabo’s man, switch on the screen and Wade ends up isolated on Durant on the wing. He tries to deny Durant position, but Durant doesn’t let him. Instead he uses his length to get a foot into Wade and seal him off so he can make a catch. Russell Westbrook sees the matchup and gets Durant the ball. Durant is only about 25 feet out from the basket which isn’t too far out.
My favorite part is that he doesn’t settle for a jumper here. Instead he takes Wade into the post and uses three dribbles to get to the elbow for a higher percentage shot. Wade doesn’t stand a chance because he has no leverage on the seven foot–yes he is; I’ve seen him in person–Durant because he’s trying to hold position. He can’t get a good contest in because Durant has such a high release point. The result is two points for the Thunder.
Here’s the next play. Take a look at it.
In this play, Durant cuts across the floor to the wing on the weakside while there is strongside action going on. The play turned into a Westbrook/Collison pick and roll and Durant did the right thing by rotating to the wing to make himself available to the ball. Westbrook sees that he has nothing and makes another wonderful decision to give the ball to Durant.
Instead of standing around waiting for the pass, Durant stays in motion when receiving the catch. In the past he would’ve been spotting up for a jumper and that would lead to an easy ball denial by Shane Battier. When Durant is in motion its harder to get a hand on him because of his quickness. Durant uses that and his length to his advantage when going to the rim. It only took Durant two dribbles to get to the rim and no help defense came. It was over for Shane Battier early in the play when Durant established his position.
One more play here. Let’s take a look and see.
This is actually the exact same pindown that was run with Thabo Sefalosha a little earlier in the quarter. The review of the play earlier is very similar to this one. The only different factor is that James Harden is setting the pindown now instead of Thabo. Durant gets the same switch in this instance except for LeBron James is trying to deny him position now.
Durant does the same thing here and seals James off completely. Westbrook delivers the ball to him and Durant has a clear driving lane. The result in the play is a foul and Durant knocks down both free throws.
The book has obviously changed on Kevin Durant. He wasn’t known as a very physical player until now. His game was more about finesse and outside shooting than it was now. He has improved his game greatly in many areas, but this is where I’m the most impressed. His lower body strength has increased, allowing him to have a stronger base and hold position now better than he ever has.
He uses his dribbles and length to efficiently get to the rim without turning the ball over as well. For a scorer, easy looks can be hard to come by. Durant has made them seem effortless late in games. If he keeps this up, the series may be over quicker than most of us expect.