Kevin Durant just recorded five blocks and three steals in the Warriors’ Game 2 NBA Finals victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday.
It was a reminder how devastating of an addition Durant was during the summer, when an already dominant Golden State team added one of the most versatile players in the world on either end of the basketball court. It was also a reminder that the preseason worries about the Warriors’ rim protection were silly.
Ron Adams couldn’t wait for the season to start. It was like Christmas came early and a present he never expected appeared under his tree.
That’s how the wife of Golden State’s veteran assistant coach told it. Basketball Santa gifted the Warriors former league Most Valuable Player, Durant. Adams was licking his chops, but not for the reasons most would expect.
“Ron can’t wait to integrate Kevin into that defense,” Leah Adams told CSN Bay Area in August.
Of course, Durant is known most for his unrivaled ability to put the ball in the basket. He won four scoring titles in a five-year span — the first player to do so since Michael Jordan won seven straight from 1987-1993 — and already leads the Warriors at 25.1 points per game on nearly 54 percent shooting.
But if anything stands out about Durant in a Warriors jersey, it isn’t his shot-making. Rather, it’s his unexpected surge on the defensive end. The Golden State star averaged a career-best 1.6 blocks per game this season. Opponents can’t score consistently when he’s guarding them, and he defends the rim better than most of league’s top centers.
Durant has soundly slid into a Warriors’ defensive scheme that thrives on switching, something Adams envisioned when the team signed its star forward in the offseason.
“His versatility is outstanding,” Adams said of Durant. “He’s a terrific defender, who played with great defensive consistency in our playoff series. We will expect a lot out of him in that regard.”
Durant has over-delivered on Adams’ expectations.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr hearkened back to his team’s playoff series against Oklahoma City as an example of how Durant could influence Golden State’s defense.
“He’s playing more [power forward] and playing in smaller lineups – Oklahoma City generally stayed pretty big when Kevin was there — which changes his responsibility,” Kerr said in November, according to the San Jose Mercury-News. “We need him in there rebounding, boxing out, covering up the paint and penetration, so it’s a little different vibe for him.”
The Warriors have turned from trying to fold Durant into the defensive scheme to relying on him to protect the paint. Golden State is much better defensively with their newfound anchor on the floor.
Their lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and JaVale McGee — the lineup Kerr relies on most with Durant on the bench — gives up an average of 115.4 points per 100 possessions. Lineups with Durant on the floor rarely give up over 100. On the whole, the Warriors ranked second in defensive efficiency, behind only San Antonio.
Golden State was already a good defensive team before free agency. With Durant, their defense is slowly becoming impenetrable.
That’s because, first and foremost, he’s a shot-blocking machine.
“There’s going to be nights where I get a few (blocks), there’s going to be nights where I don’t,” Durant told reporters after posting 22 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks in Golden State’s 121-111 early-season win over Toronto.
Those block parties seem more often than not.
Durant’s 1.6 blocks per game are a career-high and he has 28 games with at least two blocks this season, according to Basketball-Reference.
KD’s shot-swatting prowess was on full display in early November when he recorded six blocks in a win over the Timberwolves.
Durant has also proven capable of guarding big men.
KD has come a long way since he was tabbed the lanky, frail kid out of Texas who could fill it up in a hurry. He’s gained 30 pounds since his rookie year, as the San Jose Mercury-News’ Anthony Slater pointed out, and has become much stronger, especially when it comes to post defense.
Kevin Durant on three huge influencers in his post defense: Kendrick Perkins, Mark Bryant, Monty Williams pic.twitter.com/CjXepH0LZ7— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 1, 2016
“I learned a lot from Kendrick Perkins and Mark Bryant,” Durant said. “They taught me everything I know in the post, especially Mark Bryant. We started to go small (in Oklahoma City) with coach (Scott Brooks) probably in 2014. I had to guard some of the bigger guys and I just didn’t know the tricks of the trade. And Mark Bryant would always bring me to the side and show me film. And Perk would always tell me little stuff that he does to help him in the post, as well.”
“But at the end of the day, my length is the part of my game where I got the advantage over guys my build. Put my hand up, making a guy shoot a tough shot. Just the positioning and doing my work early, and learning that stuff comes from Mark Bryant and Kendrick Perkins.”
It was Bryant and Perkins who taught Durant to focus on positioning and do his defensive work in the post early.
You can see spoils of his hard work on possessions like one against the Timberwolves, where he strong-armed Karl-Anthony Towns off the low block and out of position. He then forced him to take a tough turn-around, fading jumper that misses badly.
In the Warriors’ Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers, Durant prevented Kevin Love from getting too deep of a post position. Durant’s ability to guard both forward positions matches up with teams like Cleveland and San Antonio that run pick-and-rolls between their small and power forwards.
He’s altering shots at the rim.
Opponents attacking Durant at the rim shot 48.7 percent, a generous percentage given how his length alters opponent’s shooting. For context, they shot 50.1 percent when attacking DeAndre Jordan at the rim, 48.6 percent when attacking Dwight Howard, 47.4 percent when attacking Hassan Whiteside, and 50 percent when attacking Anthony Davis.
In many instances, Durant doesn’t even need to jump. The sheer threat of his wingspan forces opponents to arc shots up higher than necessary.
That’s because when he doesn’t get his paws on a potential shot, his exacting, near-7’5 wingspan forces opponents to change their shot at the rim.
Now, the Warriors defense looks as tough as ever.
The Warriors smother their man on defense because they know the help is always there. Everyone can switch, and everyone knows where they should be. It forces teams into tough situations, like in the opening minute of Golden State’s Wednesday win over Toronto when DeMar DeRozan bailed Toronto out with a Kobe-like contested fadeaway jump shot.
That effort puts the Warriors second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, holding teams to 101.1 points per 100 possessions.
Kerr told reporters in November that Durant had been “inconsistent” defensively, and that his matriculation into their scheme was a learning process. But KD has quickly surged ahead of the curve. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and player efficiency rating, and could enter his hat into the Defensive Player of the Year award race, as well.
It’s like Warriors adviser Jerry West forecasted, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, during the team’s free agency meeting with the seven-time NBA All-Star.
Finally, West pointed out to Durant how he believes his overall game is overlooked in Oklahoma City. Although Durant is known as one of the greatest scorers of all time, he does not receive much credit for his rebounding — he led the Thunder with 8.2 boards per game last season — or defense.
And now that Durant has hit his stride in the Warriors’ defensive system, the rest of the league should cower in their collective kicks when attacking the paint while he’s around. This is what Ron Adams always envisioned.