Kevin Durant is indefensible. This is what we’ve all been told. The media says it (myself included). Coaches say it. His fellow players say it. There is supposedly nothing you can do with an elite shooter with guard skills who is seven feet tall with a skyscraper release point. They all say the same thing: All you can do is try to make it tough on the guy.
On Wednesday, the Boston Celtics made it more than tough on Durant. They made his life a living hell en route to a 114-107 Game 2 victory over the Brooklyn Nets to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round series.
You won’t often see Durant legitimately bothered by a defender, even multiple defenders, but it turns out, he is defendable. Sure, you have to have the Celtics’ personnel to pull it off, which no other team in the league has, and that personnel has to devote itself almost entirely to stopping one man, and the officials have to let the game become extremely physical, which only happens in the playoffs … but here K.D. is in the postseason, against the Celtics, who are almost entirely dedicated to stopping one man, and so far it’s actually working.
This is relative, of course. Durant still scored 27 points on Wednesday, but it required 18 free throws. He shot 4 of 17 from the field, and he was 0 for 10 in the second half. This after going 9 for 24 in Game 1.
“I mean they’re playing two or three guys on me sometimes when I’m off the ball, they’re mucking up actions when I run off stuff,” Durant said. “I see [Al] Horford leaving his man to come over to hit me sometimes. They’re just playing — two or three guys hit me wherever I go. You know? And that’s just the nature of the beast in the playoffs.
“I felt like I got a couple good shots there in the fourth that just didn’t go down,” Durant continued, “but I see a few of their guys around me every time I get the ball or when I’m setting up, so I gotta be more patient but also play fast sometimes too.”
I gotta be more patient but also play fast sometimes too. That just about sums up the pickle in which Durant finds himself. The Celtics are throwing multiple looks at him, and there are no easy answers. Playing fast can lead to forced shots, of which Durant had a lot on Wednesday. But patience can also easily turn into passivity, and indeed Durant became less and less aggressive in trying to battle for position and navigate the sea of octopus arms swarming around him as the game wore on.
Finding that sweet spot between patience and aggression is an art form which Durant has perfected over the years, but every once in a while a challenge pops up that reminds even a player as great as Durant that scoring 30 and 40 points in an NBA game, let alone in the playoffs, is harder than he usually makes it look.
It’s not that Durant can’t handle hard.
It’s just that he’s not used to it.
I remember talking to the great Mark Price a few years back, and I never forgot what he told me about confidence. What he said, in essence, is that it’s not a permanent thing. It comes and goes, even for great players, who love to tell you that they never lose their confidence.
Right now, Durant is not confident. Does that mean he’s stopped believing in himself? Of course not. It just means he’s hesitating. He’s uncertain, jumpy, caught in between. He’s thinking about who’s going to hit him next, where they’re going to come from, when they’re going to come and how many of them there are going to be. He usually just sees the basket. Nothing else.
Durant was in a pretty good flow in the first half on Wednesday, but there’s a level of attrition at play here. Durant has played at least 41 minutes over his last six games. He played 42 in Game 2. He’s tired. He’s frustrated. The Celtics are wrapping themselves around him and they just keep squeezing.
Next thing you know he’s catching the ball farther out and/or later in the clock, or not catching it at all, just standing in the corner as Kyrie Irving tries his luck at creating something.
This kind of capitulation, even if only for a possession or two at a time, tends to happen when every step you take somebody is there to check you, hold you, grab you, and two more guys are two steps away waiting to do the same thing. Sooner or later, you’re going to put your hands on your hips and take a play or two off.
It doesn’t help that Steve Nash’s offense — to whatever extent you want to call it that — is comprised largely of giving the ball to his two best scorers and, well, hoping that they score. Movement is minimal, making it easy, or easier, for Boston to sit all of Brooklyn’s actions. There are flashes of good stuff. We know about the Bruce Brown short rolls and middle flashes, and my guess, or hope, for Game 3 is that Nash will use Seth Curry as a strong-side shooter more often to make it harder for Boston to dig down off the wing.
Because right now, when Durant has the ball In the middle(ish) area of the floor, the Celtics are sinking down with their wings into his line of sight at both elbows. They are still quick and savvy enough to recover to shooters, so it’s not a simple drive and kick for Durant, but the better the shooter on the wing the less margin for error on these shows, or stunts, or digs, or however you want to phrase these jab steps in Durant’s direction that are giving him pause as he tries to assess whether a second defender is coming.
Most of the time, they’re coming with a crowd, but in rare one-on-one cases, Boston does have guys who can hold their own vs. Durant. Jayson Tatum is doing work on him. But most of this defense is a team effort, which makes it easier, in theory, to sustain.
Because Boston is so collectively long with so many athletic, switchable defenders, everyone’s individual burden is eased. As Durant pointed out in more postgame comments, “[they] don’t gotta chase over screens or fight over stuff, [they] can use [their] length, sit in the lane and help and execute the game plan.”
Indeed, for any other defense, putting Durant in a stranglehold like this would require extreme exertion. But as easy as offense is for Durant, that’s how easy defense is for the Celtics, who can cover for each other without any drop-off rather than only having a couple capable defenders who have to run themselves into the ground to chase Durant. That’s how it usually works. Durant wears you down over the course of a game, not the other way around.
But through two games, Boston has the big upper hand. Brooklyn could’ve, probably should’ve, won Game 1, but Durant got caught ball watching in the waning seconds as Tatum slipped behind him for a game-winning layup. You’ve likely seen the play by now, but look at Durant (top of circle) just standing like a statue. He glances up at the clock and then locks his eyes on Smart, who to be fair everyone in the world thought was going to shoot. In that split second, Tatum broke for the bucket. That’s all it took.
That’s how thin the line is in this series. A split-second lapse in attention could end up being the difference. Had Durant cut Tatum off, Smart might’ve pulled the trigger himself, or kicked out to Jaylen Brown, whose territory Durant would have abandoned. Either way, it wouldn’t have been a layup. The odds would’ve been in Brooklyn’s favor.
Even with the way Durant has struggled to score, if Brooklyn would’ve secured Game 1 and was now heading home with the series tied 1-1, it would feel like only a matter of time until Durant starts to dominate again.
But now he’s just about out of time. If he doesn’t find his groove in Game 3, and the Nets lose again, this thing is over. It’s already highly unlikely that Brooklyn is going to beat this Boston team four out of the next five games to win this series, but if the Nets go down 3-0 and have to sweep four straight, forget about it. Durant and the Nets are being squeezed out, and Boston isn’t going to loosen its grip.