The Defense of Kevin Durant

The opening minutes of the 2017 NBA Finals looked something like this old Sony commercial:

Days worth of compressed kinetic energy ejected into the bay area, suspending witnesses in wonder. Mostly uninhibited by whistles and free throws, it was sloppy, but pure basketball. All the drills, film study, and scheming was immediately converted into instincts and further analysis as the teams attempted to settle into the initial coverages. Some of the coverages broke down and gave way to missed layups and gruesome slams. When the energy started to choke down, and spotlights shined on the execution of halfcourt defense, one of the more expectable differences in the clash was exposed. The Cavaliers struggled to find driving lanes against hungry Warriors. The Golden State defense only proved to be more fortified for the rest of the first half when they frenzied the Cavs into 12 turnovers by intermission; 12 decreased into a reluctantly​ better 8 in the following half. LeBron compounded the issue of disharmony by joining Manu Ginobili, Kenyon Martin, and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players since 1984 to commit more than 7 turnovers in an NBA Finals game. The 8 mistakes were equal to the number of assists he chalked up.

Like we’ve seen his championship opponents do in the past, Golden State was somewhat willing to let LeBron get his. The impact of this kind of strategy is profound, but should also be well understood. Ignoring that LeBron’s best skill is passing, a fusion of team basketball has consistently proven to outlast 1-on-1 scoring. Isolation scoring is thrilling to watch, and a justified method, so long as the matchup is truly advantageous. Kevin Durant was not an advantageous matchup for LeBron.

The amusement of imagining a long line of legendary James vs Durant battles in June became a recurrent thought process when the 2012 Finals spilled into memorable regular season games every time the two faced off. There was Christmas 2012, a February 2013 game at Chesapeake where they combined for 79 points, a January 2014 game where they nearly hit 70; it was two insanely great ballplayers with contrasting styles, but comparable size, going at each other for 30+ per night on repeat. The June 1st, 2017 version featured LeBron putting up 28 to KD’s 38, but that fails to represent what actually took place when LeBron was defended by Durant.

First, take a brief look at some of the ways James did collect his points and assists. 

Very few came against KD, and 6 of the points that did were a couple of 3s that Durant was mostly willing to give up. Durant even later made up for the euro-step finish James scored when he took a charge on a very similar play.

Now look at some of the turnovers and stops Durant and his teammates forced James into.

When LeBron attacked off the dribble Durant did an excellent job of not giving up a lane to the middle of the court, while still beating LeBron to the block to take away a baseline drive or look at the basket. LeBron focused on the weakside defense, trying to understand the passing lanes, or lack thereof, available to him.

PLACEHOLDER

If LeBron did drive to the middle, Durant’s length bothered James during contested shots at the rim.

PLACEHOLDER

If Durant’s length wasn’t already bothersome enough, Draymond slid over to help off of Tristan Thompson. We’ve seen Thompson set good flare screens for shooters that pin the help from the corner into the lane, but Klay did a nice job of being in the passing lane, and then recovering back around the screen if LeBron made the pass to the corner.

PLACEHOLDER

As seen on the last play, LeBron frequently committed the cardinal sin of jumping to make a pass. It rarely ever comes back to bite him, but he underestimated the length or speed of the weakside help on numerous occasions and was caught in the air, with nowhere to go.

PLACEHOLDER

Here’s the charge Durant drew that I mentioned earlier. KD can cover some serious ground with his sliding strides, and James mostly lacks the pull-up shooting and dribble moves to keep Durant honest on this type of possession. LeBron being out of control like this could be a symptom of the greater issue; he knows he can’t beat Durant off the dribble and needs to draw a foul or get into his body to make space for a finish over, or around, Durant’s length.

PLACEHOLDER

Not only does McAdoo force LeBron further away from the basket, LeBron shoots this strange inside hand flip against Durant. This is a situation that the jump pass may have worked, but LeBron was so bottled up that he no longer trusted it. It’s a tough possession because most of the Warriors’ help had been coming from the weak-wing (Curry on Kyrie), and not the corner (KD on Love), but as Curry bumps down to be in position to closeout on Love, LeBron misses a good, if not a little late, cut from Kyrie.

PLACHOLDER

A multiple-move isolation shutdown from KD where he avoided a foul with a terrific rim contest.

PLACEHOLDER

Unlike the first couple games of last year’s Finals, it didn’t take very long for Cleveland to start hunting out Curry switches for LeBron. However, with a more agile version of Curry and Durant in the picture, the inverted pick-and-rolls didn’t work until the Cavs started setting up more complicated 3-man ballscreen actions in the second half. In the standard 2-man versions, Curry hopped out to show high on LeBron, and take away the lane before LeBron could build up any steam for his famed freight train runs to the rim. As LeBron barreled into him, Steph was in position to draw a charge. After he didn’t get the call, Curry remained on the ground as Durant recovered back to James. In a rush, LeBron tried squeezing a pass through a non-existent window, barricaded by KD’s wingspan and Steph’s body.

PLACEHOLDER

This screen didn’t create an advantage and looked similar to James’ isolated drives against Durant. Tristan Thompson sets the aforementioned flare screen, but Klay puts forth superb effort to get around the screen and prevent J.R. Smith from shooting.

PLACEHOLDER

With the screen being set so far from the basket, LeBron isn’t anywhere near a location he could harm the Warriors. This play shows the major difference between last year’s Curry-switches and what took place in Game 1; Cleveland could depend on Golden State switching last year and didn’t have to do anything too complicated to get the play to work. But last night, the Cavs were the ones telegraphing, while the Warriors reacted and recovered.

PLACEHOLDER

Of course it wasn’t all bad for LeBron, and he started to find better ways to score when driving and using ballscreens. He made a great read on this play when he got to the outside lane and extended his penetration all the way under the basket. Durant helps from the weak-wing and James finds Love for a decent look that he could’ve also passed to Smith. Notice Tristan Thompson pin Pachulia under the basket, instead of trying to set the corner flare for Kyrie.

PLACEHOLDER

Durant was aggressive in clamping down on LeBron and getting over screens that didn’t include Curry. The downfall of this type of screen-defense is that once the defender slides over the top of the screen, the screen can then be flipped and used going the opposite direction. Jefferson doesn’t flip the screen on this play, but Durant was still too high in his effort to take away middle, which allowed Jefferson to just re-screen. LeBron was more patient in the second half. He was better at setting up the screen and preying on Durant’s aggression. Once the space was created, James started threading pocket passes to pick apart Pachulia’s pick-and-roll defense and avoid Durant’s length.

PLACEHOLDER

Here’s an example of flipping the ball-screen. Jefferson nails Durant, and Pachulia has no chance containing LeBron as he snakes back to the middle. Durant being removed from the play makes the passing lanes a little easier as well. In fashion of the Warriors help scheme, neither Curry or Draymond want to help from the corners.

PLACEHOLDER

The Cavs run the Horns set “45” on this play and get Curry involved in a 3-man screening action. The detail that nails home the execution is Smith performing a short roll instead of a pop. In doing so, it makes it harder for Curry to recover when he stunts against LeBron. James makes another pocket pass to split Iguodala and Curry, and the Cavs suddenly have a 4-on-3.

PLACEHOLDER

Now that the reactionary first game is out of the way, the matchup will delve deeper into the cat-and-mouse dynamic of the series. It was most definitely a blowout with a severe contrast of execution. The Warriors swarming defense fueled their transition massacre, and frankly caught LeBron and the Cavaliers off-guard. Golden State has plenty of great defenders to throw at LeBron, but I didn’t expect Durant to be the most effective. As pointed out, there are things the Cavs can do differently in Game 2. That acknowledged, it might be that Kevin Durant’s defense, not offense, ends up being the chief detail of the 2017 NBA Finals.


Tommy Driscoll

@drizmasterflash

tommy@dimetheoryhoops.com

Leave a Reply