Kevin Durant Embraces Villain Role Against Jazz

3:19 | NBA
Despite emphasis on offense, Warriors' defense continues to impress
Sunday May 7th, 2017

Even though he hadn’t been in a clutch situation in more than three months, Kevin Durant made every important play—and a few new enemies—down the stretch on Saturday.

The Warriors defeated the Jazz 102-91 at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, surviving their first tough test of a one-sided, second-round series thanks to a breakthrough night from Durant. While LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas have taken turns sharing the postseason spotlight, Durant has had a surprisingly quiet run through the first two rounds. A minor calf injury kept him out of two Warriors wins over the Blazers, and Golden State’s dominant 7-0 start hasn’t required much in the way of late-game heroics from either Durant or Stephen Curry.

But Utah capitalized on slow nights from both Curry and Klay Thompson on Saturday, staying within striking range for much of the fourth quarter. With a little more than six minutes left, the Jazz held an 80-79 lead, a noteworthy event given that the Warriors had scored wire-to-wire double-digit wins in both Game 1 and Game 2.  

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The game’s final act belonged to Durant, though, who appeared to relish his opportunity to play closer on the road. Remarkably, Durant had not appeared in a clutch situation—defined as a five-point scoring margin or less in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime—since a Feb. 4 loss to the Kings. Although Durant did miss 19 games in March and April due to a knee injury, he still managed to play in 15 games without any of those contests truly hanging in the balance.

Durant’s response was sensational, as he scored 11 of his game-high 38 points in the final six minutes. The points came fast, furiously and in a variety of manners: Durant snuck past Rudy Gobert for a lay-up, he walked into a mid-range jumper, he hit a pull-up three over Gobert, he drained a step-back near the foul line over Gobert, and he even kissed in a dagger off the glass in the game’s final minute.

“Gobert is 7 feet tall,” Warriors coach Mike Brown said. “When we sprint somebody into a ball screen, that creates a little bit of separation. Gobert is doing what he’s supposed to do, he wants to protect the paint. When we play pick-and-roll with KD, if whoever Gobert is guarding sets a solid screen, KD is going to come off wide open.

“KD can shoot from 25 feet, 20 feet, 17 feet or get to the rim. It doesn’t matter. That puts Gobert in a predicament. He’s got a 7-footer coming at him going downhill. Most 7-footers defensively, their instinct is to start retreating and KD just pulls up for the little jump shot. For us, it’s simplistic, basic backyard basketball. You go where you think you have an advantage.”

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Durant’s last shot—the banker over Gordon Hayward—prompted him to unleash a Jordanesque shrug, a final gesture in a tense endgame. Over the preceding few minutes, Durant had apparently asked the Jazz’s mascot to get off the court, he had exchanged words with a courtside heckler, and he had been whistled for a flagrant foul 1 and a technical foul after shoving Gobert in the back in retaliation for an elbow.

“That’s why they call our league soft because they call flagrants for stuff like that,” Durant said. “I’m sure he didn’t mind if we just moved on. I didn’t mind if we just moved on with the play. It is what it is. There’s been grabbing, pushing and holding, that’s just basketball. They’re trying to clean that stuff up I guess.”

Utah now faces a potential elimination game on Monday because its own offense fell flat, unable to take advantage of a combined 7-29 shooting night from Curry and Thompson. The Jazz bench managed just 10 points, as coach Quin Snyder tightened his rotation without starting point guard George Hill. Hayward scored a team-high 29 points, but ultimately proved unable to go shot-for-shot with Durant.    

“When he’s making shots he’s tough to guard,” Hayward said of his All-Star counterpart. “He can do a little bit of everything. Shoot threes, post, transition, get to the rim. You try to make everything difficult.”

The game’s final stretch featured big shots, a little anger and a major sense of release from Durant, who may very well need to face both Leonard and James if he is to claim the first title of his career. It took a little longer than usual, but his “Welcome to the playoffs” breakout was yet another reminder that the still-undefeated Warriors have more go-to options than anybody. 

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