Joining the Golden State Warriors was supposed to make Kevin Durant a more well-rounded player, and it has. He put together one of the more efficient volume-scoring seasons we’ve ever seen in 2016-17 by turning good shots into great shots and ended up with an NBA championship and a Finals MVP trophy to show for it. Put it all together, and his first season in Steve Kerr’s democratic system couldn’t have gone much better.
Durant is having another memorable season in 2017-18 and is now two wins away from winning his second championship, but something feels … different. It’s not that his scoring has taken a hit. His efficiency has slightly, but his scoring is actually up since last season, both in the regular season and postseason. His assist numbers are almost the same as well. He averaged 5.4 assists per game during the regular season, his most since he was named league MVP in 2013-14, and he’s averaging 4.3 in these playoffs, tied for the second-highest mark of his postseason career.
A better place to start is with his shot selection, which has undergone quite the transformation over the last three years.
The Warriors are known for their ball movement. They consistently rank near the top of the league in passes per game and assists per as a team, and Durant’s shot distribution last season was a reflection of that, with the bulk of his points coming in transition, on spot-ups and off of screens. He still scored a decent amount in isolation and pick-and-rolls, but those plays represented far less of his offense than they did in Oklahoma City.
Fast forward to this season, and Durant is isolating at a greater rate then ever before. The combination has impacted how much he handles the ball, with his usage rate increasing from 27.6 percent to 29.9 percent in the regular season and 28.1 percent to 30.9 percent in the postseason. He’s also creating more points for himself without the help of his teammates. Whereas 61.7 percent of his baskets were assisted last season, only 54.3 percent were this season. There’s been a greater difference in the playoffs: 56.4 percent in 2017, down to 44.7 percent in 2018.
It hasn’t stopped Durant and the Warriors from being in the position they are today, largely because Durant is unstoppable in 1-on-1 situations. According to NBA.com, the nine-time All-Star is averaging 1.01 points per isolation possession in the postseason, the same rate as LeBron James and James Harden. He’s even averaging 1.10 points per post-up possession, putting him on the same page as Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns and — once again — LeBron.
A 7-footer who has the length of a center and the skills of a guard, there’s little defenses can do when Durant catches the ball in his sweet spots. He’ll take bigger defenders out to the perimeter when they switch onto him and bully smaller defenders in the post, where he can use his 7-foot-4 wingspan to shoot over them with ease. So it’s no surprise Durant has seen his frequency in isolation spike based on how often the Rockets and Cavaliers switch on defense, because he has good reason to believe in himself when Chris Paul, who is basically a foot shorter than him, switches onto him on the 3-point line.
Kerr talked about Durant’s ability to create high percentage looks for himself heading into a must-win Game 6 against the Rockets, saying he’s the “ultimate answer” against switching defenses. The question is whether or not the Warriors have needed to lean on Durant in isolation as much as they have in these playoffs.
While there have been games where Durant has carried them — Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, when he helped the Warriors steal a game on the road against the No. 1 seeded Rockets with 37 points, being the best example — there have been times where his reliance on attacking mismatches has made Golden State look decidedly un-Warriors-like, particularly down the stretch of games.
Watch the 29 shots Durant has attempted in the fourth quarter since the start of the Western Conference Finals (of which he has missed 20), and it’s hard to ignore the degree of difficulty on these sorts of possessions:
Failing to see the likes of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green with open shots when the Rockets collapsed on his drives only made matters worse. Durant failed to record an assist in two of the seven games the Warriors played against the Rockets, and he finished another game in the series with only one assist.
Durant did acknowledge some of the issues that plagued him in the Rockets series prior to the NBA Finals, telling The Athletic’s Anthony Slater he wasn’t seeing Houston’s help defenders for a couple of games, which led to him “running into crowds,” “forcing [shots]” and “going too fast on his drives.” The same problems haunted him in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, when it took him 22 shots to score 26 points, but he looked like the reigning Finals MVP who makes the Warriors the scariest team in the league in Game 2.
It’s not that Durant didn’t score in isolation in Game 2. It was that he was more selective, taking smarter shots against George Hill and J.R. Smith, neither of whom have the length needed to contest his shots, instead of trying to score against Jeff Green and LeBron James, both of whom are better equipped to match up with the four-time scoring champion physically. It also helps he was more decisive and unselfish in Game 2. In attacking the defense early and assisting his teammates in ways he didn’t against the Rockets, Durant’s contributions came within the flow of Golden State’s offense, not as an extension of it.
When he’s doing all of those things at a high level, it makes you forget about how much his game has changed since last season.