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OKLAHOMA CITY — When Draymond Green rounded the corner, there was nothing but open floor between him and the rim. A screen from Andre Iguodala had tangled the Thunder’s switching defense and a pocket pass from Stephen Curry out of the pick-and-roll had pulled it tight. This is the kind of breakdown the Warriors engineer on a regular basis; even a slight tilt can be exploited to get a terrific playmaker running downhill, after which a defense has but a tiny window to rotate and respond.
That was all Kevin Durant needed to take one giant step across the lane and beat Green to his spot. Green still tried to sneak an attempt past Durant when the two met in midair, but KD somehow twisted his vertical contest into a two-handed block at the last possible moment.
“We try to cover for each other and just make plays at the rim,” Durant said. “I was able to make one.”
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Durant is, essentially, the most mobile seven-footer in the league. No player of his height can lock in and guard on the perimeter like he can or cover the same ground when defending in space. His defensive capability is exceptional, which is almost a prerequisite of attempting to guard an opponent with the collective speed, playmaking, and shooting of the Warriors. So many forwards before him have been stretched thin by the task. Durant, by comparison, begins most possessions matched up with Green and can switch fluidly to any offensive player that Green comes in contact with.
That very dynamic has discouraged some of Golden State’s more straightforward pick-and-roll play at times, given that Durant will pick up Curry at nearly any distance and control his options with length. Durant’s wingspan eats passing angles. It restricts shot options. It encourages Curry to drive off a knee and ankle he recently injured and attempt to finish with a shot-blocker parked in front of him and Durant closing in from behind. The Warriors have run targeted off-ball screens in an attempt to remove Durant from the immediate action and do better.
One can hardly blame them. These playoffs have born the most successful and sustained defensive run of Durant’s career—most notably the high-wire switching and containment that have enabled the Thunder to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals. It takes a critical level of court awareness to see the breakdown in progress on a possession like this one, but Durant identifies it quickly and rotates out to Curry in the corner seamlessly:
Oklahoma City’s small-ball lineups, which were deployed to great effect in Game 3, played uncompromising defense by nailing those exchanges and rotating with punch. Running with the Warriors is a dangerous game; any loss of focus can result in a quick swing. Yet the best variation (Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and Andre Roberson) of Thunder small ball didn’t just keep pace—it was outright dominant defensively. By allowing just 21.5% shooting from the field against Golden State’s top lineups, that particular group ran up a 45-15 advantage in just 12 minutes on the floor.
“Obviously we had a run there with Enes [Kanter] and Steven against San Antonio, and we still like that lineup,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “We still want to utilize that lineup. But also, I felt like with Curry and Klay Thompson on the court…for us defensively it may have been a little bit [better to go small] in terms of us being able to guard.”
Not only are those lineups impossible to field without Durant, but they likely wouldn’t have survived defensively without the full breadth of his defense. How many players can switch their way through possessions while playing each opponent’s tendencies to this kind of precision:
That same defender created an instinctive hesitation with his very presence. Just by running past a scoring attempt in progress, Durant’s length scared the Warriors into pump fakes and awkward timing:
In the rare cases that a Warrior with the ball did seem to get a favorable angle against Durant, he’d fight to hang around the play and smother it as best he could:
Occasional mistakes and all, this was an ace defensive performance from Durant at the very spot in the lineup where such a thing was needed. Oklahoma City leaned on Roberson’s diligence, Waiters’s full focus, Westbrook’s restraint, and Ibaka’s help to make its defensive stands possible. Yet Durant was at the epicenter of so many high-stress actions by the Thunder’s own design and thrived with the responsibility. He didn’t just play power forward; Durant’s fluidity made him a one-on-one perimeter stopper, a help-side shot blocker, a lock-and-trail defender, and a safety net in the middle of the floor. Durant was Draymond Green in a game where even Draymond wasn’t quite himself.
If there’s been an epiphany in this series to date, it’s there. For so long Durant balked at the physical and mental stressors of regularly playing up a position—as is understandable for a superstar who carries such a heavy creative burden. Yet Durant was so game for the task Sunday that he revealed a terrifying edge for the Thunder defense. Playing small can do a lot to boost a team’s speed and spacing. It also, in the context of this particular matchup, looks to be the Thunder’s best bet in containing a particularly explosive opponent.