Kevin Durant is growing a little tired of questions about his ability to play defense. “Underrated?” Durant responded when recently asked about the perception of his D. “My coaches don’t feel like that.”
Neither does he, and KD’s menacing, 6-foot-9 presence from the paint to the perimeter is a big reason unbeaten Golden State is closing in on its second championship in three years.
While best known for his sensational scoring and shot-making from every corner of the court, Durant has been tough on LeBron James so far in these NBA Finals by smothering the Cavs superstar. The Warriors are two wins from a title going into Game 3 at Cleveland on Wednesday night.
Durant is chasing his first championship and seems determined to do whatever it takes. So versatile with his length and ability to alter shots, he even played center during Sunday’s Game 2 when Draymond Green dealt with foul trouble in the 132-113 victory.
“I don’t think there’s many teams in the league who their backup is better than their starter,” Green said. “So I think that’s a luxury that we have with KD here, and when I went out with foul trouble, obviously he _ to say pick up the slack is kind of a ridiculous term, because he’s a great player, an MVP, one of the best players in the world. So just the way he played on the defensive end, the way he played on the offensive end, he’s been doing it all playoffs long, but in these Finals, he’s really picked it up, and it’s been huge for us.”
Durant and Green have set the tone all season on the defensive end, establishing an intensity and toughness and the rest of the Warriors had no choice but to do more during Durant’s 19-game absence this spring with a knee injury.
“If we’re locked in on the defensive end, we’ll score enough points,” Green said. “Even on an off night, we’ll score enough points.”
After his NBA Finals failure five years ago against James and the Heat, Durant vowed to become a legitimate, respected defender who could make nearly as much of an impact blocking shots and crashing the boards. He insists he can do even more.
“I’ve gotten better, and 2013 is when I feel I really turned the corner as a defender. Around 2012, that’s when coaches stopped thinking they could go at me and get a basket or get me in foul trouble,” Durant said.
“But I don’t expect anybody on the outside who really doesn’t know the game to look at me as a defender because once you’re labeled something that’s what you’re going to be. But I feel the last four or five years I’ve definitely continued to get better and better, and smarter. I have the physical tools, but it’s also about mentally knowing what to do.”
Sure, James still notched his record-tying eighth career Finals triple-double and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had big nights. Yet Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and the others kept the pressure on the Cavs.
Durant blocked five shots to go with 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists after going off for 38 points and eight assists in Thursday’s Game 1. “His defense was amazing, and we needed it. Especially with Draymond out,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s a small game and you got shooters everywhere and you have to be able protect the rim with LeBron coming downhill, with Love posting up and Draymond’s on the bench. So that’s a pretty scary proposition for us. I thought that Kev’s defense was unreal, and it was probably the key to the whole game.”
It could be that Durant’s defense will quiet the critics at last, especially if he comes out a winner after that scrutinized move from Oklahoma City last July to join the super-Warriors.
“I don’t feel like I get picked on or people call sets just to try to score on me. That hasn’t happened in a while,” he said. “I’ve grown leaps and bounds from where I was. I feel like I’ve been a solid defender in this league for a while.”
With all of their offensive firepower, the Warriors often turn a stretch of timely defensive stops into scoring spurts that can swing the momentum. Or, in many cases, give them just the jolt they need to put a game out of reach for good.
“I operate under the assumption that our guys know what to do and they know their system,” Golden State assistant and defensive specialist Ron Adams said. “We have an eclectic system. There’s freedom offensively, and we have some freedom defensively, and we’re good at it.”
When the Warriors added Durant, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West to a roster that blew a 3-1 Finals lead to James and fell short of a repeat last year, many wondered if they would have enough in the middle to defend the rim.
“It was a question mark for some people going into the season, losing (Andrew) Bogut and some other guys,” general manager Bob Myers said. “Ron is interesting. He’s always had good defensive teams. And we take pride in it, we care about it. I know the offense gets most of the attention but our players, they work at it, collectively, individually. They want to be a good defensive team. We try to do it all year. Sometimes it’s better than other times, but this is the time of year you really need it the most. For us, we view it as important as our offense. It’s not as sexy, but it’s important.”