THEY HAD COME to expect he would hit the improbable jumper, the most difficult shot at the most critical time. That’s why Kevin Durant came here, right? In Golden State’s championship-clinching, Game 5 win, the signature Durant basket was a fallaway 3-pointer with a shade over 10 minutes remaining over the outstretched arms of Kevin Love as the shot clock clicked down — 0:06, 0:05, 0:04.
That jumper pushed his team’s tenuous lead to eight points. It’s a moment that will be featured in every highlight reel, every championship documentary. Durant was named the MVP of the 2017 NBA Finals following a 39-point, seven-rebound performance that cemented his place in the pantheon of great players who rise to the occasion when the game matters most.
Few will remember another moment in Game 5, early in the third quarter, when Durant, who was shadowing LeBron James, was picked off by a screen and switched onto Love on the left elbow. Love turned to face the 7-footer, tried to post, turned back again to face Durant, took two dribbles with his right hand, pump-faked … and went nowhere. With Durant bodied up on him, Love had no angle to shoot and tossed the ball back to James, who was forced to launch a 25-foot desperation trey that clanked off the rim.
Defense rarely makes headlines, but that’s why the Warriors are champions today. After a Game 4 meltdown in which Golden State relinquished an NBA-record 86 points in a half, and a ragged first half in Game 5 in which Cleveland shot 53 percent, the Warriors regrouped in the second half Monday to extinguish any hopes of a Cavaliers comeback with closeouts such as Durant’s on Love. Durant has never been viewed as a defensive stopper the way teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have, but when he signed with Golden State last July, he understood what made this team thrive.
“You got to play both ends,” he said. “I was ready for that.”
His clutch, pull-up 3 over James in Game 3 will be framed as another signature moment in these Finals, the glossy cover to a championship dossier in which he laid claim to the moniker of this year’s best player on the biggest stage.
But nearly as memorable to Durant’s teammates was a subtler encounter with LeBron earlier in Game 3, when James rotated to the top of the key with Durant in pursuit. For a split second, it was as if the basketball seas had parted. LeBron, with Durant crouching in front of him, surveyed a free path to the basket and made a motion to start his power drive, which he has used to muscle past overmatched defenders for much of his career. But Durant held his position, spindly arms outstretched. The message: Go ahead. I dare you.
James hesitated, thought better of it — and passed the ball. “All you want as a defender is make a guy think twice,” Green says. “That’s what you saw with LeBron. He knows he can’t just attack KD.”
That realization was a residual effect from Game 2, when, midway through the second quarter with Golden State holding a 53-46 advantage, LeBron brushed off a high screen, bulled his way to the hole from the left wing and moved one step past Durant. James, convinced he had KD beat, released the lefty lay-in just before Durant swatted it into the seats.
He was far from Durant’s only victim that night.
Consider Kyrie Irving, who lined up a step-back jumper from the top of the key as the shot clock dwindled down. Durant knocked that shot away, too.
Minutes later, as Love set up in the post, Durant waited, refused to bite on the up-fake, then stuffed Love when he finally launched a turnaround. Durant grabbed the rejection, drove the length of the court and scored a layup in transition.
It was a dazzling display of defensive versatility. By the time Game 2 had ended, Durant had submitted arguably the greatest defensive performance of his life. Most observers gushed over the 33 points he scored, but Durant also finished with five blocks, three steals and 11 defensive rebounds. Only one other player since 1984, according to Basketball-Reference.com, has matched those numbers: Hall of Fame shoo-in Tim Duncan, who did it in Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals. No Hakeem, no Shaq. Just Duncan, one of the finest defensive players of his generation, and Durant.
While KD spent chunks of this series guarding LeBron, his assignments varied, sometimes from possession to possession, matching up against everyone from Love to Kyle Korver. Durant checked Irving, utilizing his uncommonly adept foot speed to thwart a point guard who is known as one of the most dynamic finishers in the league. Irving got nowhere. When Durant was on him, he quickly moved the ball along.
“Kevin is long, he’s got quick feet, he’s good on lateral movement, and it’s hard to shoot over him,” says Ron Adams, Golden State’s defensive Yoda. “And, if you get past him, he’ll get you from behind. It’s not just length — it’s also timing.”
Green is a favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year and is a regular on the All-Defensive ledger. Yet in these Finals, Durant, who has never sniffed All-Defensive — either first or second team — often matched Draymond’s Swiss-army-knife capabilities. Green insists it is time to include Durant in the discussion as one of the league’s elite defenders.
“Kevin can guard anybody in the NBA,” Green says. “He’s also the best scorer in the league. So how is he not the best two-way player in the game? How come nobody gives him that? It’s amazing to me.”
IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE WHY we are all so mesmerized by Durant’s scoring arsenal in the same way we are hypnotized by Golden State’s crisp ball movement, 3-point bombs and explosive transition game. But, as Steph Curry reminds us, so many of those highlights are spawned from the defensive end of the floor. One little misstep and these Warriors will pounce, whether it’s off a turnover or a missed shot.
More often than not, the Warriors have four players on the floor, including Durant, who can start the break themselves. And, as the Warriors streak down the floor, it’s not uncommon for Curry or Thompson or even Durant to suddenly pull up and drill a 3. Giving up points in transition is demoralizing, but giving up three of them is crushing. It happened at least once in every game of this series.
“Those are momentum swings,” Curry says, “that only happen if we get stops.”
Durant says that coach Steve Kerr began talking defense almost as soon as he arrived — stressing that few, if any, championship teams won with subpar defenses, and the team needed to be within the top five of most defensive categories.
Message received. The Warriors were rather quietly a defensive juggernaut this season — leading the league in defensive field goal percentage (43.2 percent), defensive 3-point percentage (32.2 percent), steals per game (9.5) and blocks per game (6.7) during the regular season. They were an excellent defensive team before Durant came aboard, but it’s no coincidence these numbers ticked up in every category with the signing of KD and his 7-foot-5 wingspan. Green, of course, is still the defensive anchor, but by pairing him with Durant, it frees Green to roam the court, rotate to challenge shooters, even double-team if he wants, while Durant relies on his length and lateral quickness to cover enough ground to guard two players at once. In those scenarios, spacing for the opposition becomes a nightmare, as Cleveland soon learned.
“Durant covers a lot of ground,” says Cavs forward Richard Jefferson. “You think the opening is there … but it’s really not.”
Durant averaged a career-high 1.6 blocks per game this season, even as he averaged four fewer minutes per game than his career average. Durant blocked 3.8 percent of 2-point shots while on the floor, per NBA.com, which is almost 50 percent higher than his previous high in block percentage (2.6 in 2012-13). It was numbers like these that quickly assuaged preseason concerns about the Warriors lacking a rim protector.
What’s harder to quantify is the number of shots Durant altered by closing out on shooters, something Korver experienced firsthand. “Even if Durant just makes you shoot a little faster than you want to, that’s great defense,” Korver says.
And Durant continued to flex his defensive muscles in the postseason. Opponents shot a measly 44.8 percent at the rim with KD contesting (a number that was only 41 percent through Game 3). There are 24 players who contested at least 50 shots at the rim in the 2017 playoffs. The only players with better success rates than Durant were Toronto’s Serge Ibaka (40 percent) and Jonas Valanciunas (43.7). By way of comparison, consider the numbers of other notable postseason rim protectors: Green (45 percent), Rudy Gobert (46.3 percent), LeBron (53 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (58.9 percent).
To put it another way, when Durant is in the vicinity, opponents miss an astonishing 55 percent of their layups.
“You can’t account for his length,” Curry says. “You don’t want to drive on him, because even if you get a step on him, he can still recover and meet you at the rim with his athleticism. When you get into a one-on-one situation with him, it really does feel like there’s nowhere to go.”
RON ADAMS HAS had a unique perspective on the development of Kevin Durant, Defensive Force. Adams was an assistant coach from 2008 to 2010 in Oklahoma City, which coincided with Durant’s first two seasons in OKC, and he says Durant was always an effective defender in OKC, but his heavy offensive responsibilities occupied the bulk of his attention and energy.
“Kevin had a tremendous amount of pressure on him to perform at an extremely high offensive level,” Adams says. “What’s changed is the defensive part of the game is more important to him now.
“He’s having fun with it. I see it in the consistency of his defensive effort.”
Adams says Durant can be even better defensively, in part because he has paid close attention to the intuitive ability of Green to anticipate the next move of the offense. Durant, Adams says, is now exhibiting similar tendencies, pointing to a moment in Game 3 when Durant, expecting Love’s cross-court pass, jumped the passing lane, intercepted the ball and took it down the floor in transition, where he found Curry for a 3-pointer.
“I call it acting rather than reacting,” Adams says, “and Kevin is getting quite good at it.”
Green says nobody should be surprised at Durant’s defensive instincts. Even though Oklahoma City was never viewed as a defensive juggernaut, Green says Durant was the single biggest disruptive defensive force in last year’s Western Conference finals.
“He altered our entire offense,” Green says. “He made us do everything we didn’t want to do, take shots we didn’t want to take. We [were] trying to space our offense and he [was] covering two guys at once with his wingspan. He was the best defensive player in that series.
“After that, I knew he had it in him. It’s about being locked in. And he’s been locked in the entire season.”
The fruits of those labors provided him the opportunity to cradle the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy all the way to his winning locker room, to revel in congratulatory hugs from James, Jerry West, his mother, Wanda, his coach, Steve Kerr, and his business partner Rich Kleiman. Each of them understands his journey to this professional apex, a moment that left Durant overwhelmed with tears of relief.
“Nobody comes in and cares about the game or loves the game as much as I do or works as hard as do,” Durant said. “You can talk about whatever happens on the outside, but inside those lines, I come to bring it every day. I work hard, I believe in myself, I believe in the game, I respect the game, I love the game, and I knew at some point in my life that it will come around for me. So I just tried to stay with those principles and keep grinding.”
“Everybody for the last 10 years knew how good he was,” Kerr said, “but until you break through and win that first championship, there is still — there’s always still something there.
“I’m just so happy Kevin has broken through. And there’s more to come from him.”
Now that Durant has a ring and a Finals MVP trophy, Green says no one should be surprised if Durant sets his sights on some defensive hardware next season. Adams says he’d be delighted if defense turns out to be Durant’s primary focus in 2017-18 and would bet the house on the results.
“If Kevin Durant makes up his mind,” Adams says, “he can do anything he wants.”