Kevin Durant carried a horrific 5-for-18 shooting clip with him into the fourth quarter Sunday night, seemingly 12 minutes shy of stringing together his worst shooting performance this season.
“I started the game off with two air-balls, and I got my mind ready that it was going to be a tough game for me shooting-wise,” Durant admitted after the game. “So I just tried to come through when the team needed me.”
Naturally, he did, delivering the Thunder a 104-93 win over Indiana that moved Oklahoma City to 17-4. But it was how Durant led his team to its eighth straight victory that stood out.
It was Durant's improved post-up game that ultimately turned around both his and the Thunder's night against the short-handed but scrappy Pacers. In the final 12 minutes, Durant scored 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting. Three of his four made baskets originated between the right block and right elbow, or more commonly referred to as the low post and high post.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” Durant said.
We've seen flashes of Durant's ever evolving low-post game. But what transpired Sunday very well could be the start of something special. Very rarely, if ever, has Durant commanded so much attention in the post while simultaneously being in such command.
The reigning three-time scoring champ didn't just score at will. This time, he called all the signals like a traffic cop, putting the Pacers in the defenseless position of doing exactly what he wanted them to do before getting exactly the shot he wanted for himself and his teammates.
“Kevin really had a good pace to his game in that fourth quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
It started with 9½ minutes left to play.
Durant and Eric Maynor began running the pick-and-roll, the play that would become the Pacers poison the rest of the night. It freed up Durant by isolating him on the right side of the floor and giving him the room he hadn't had to operate through the first three quarters, when nearly every shot he launched was either contested or received heavy contact.
Everything that played out next only validated what so many already knew — Durant, at his size, with his skills, can be utterly unstoppable in the post.
“It's limitless,” said Kevin Martin of the team's options. “With him having the ball at 6-10, 6-11 he can look over the defense. And when we have shooters on the court they just have to pick their poison. He can score over two or three guys any night. That's what we were doing down the stretch and he carried us.”
First, Durant drilled a faceup jumper over Paul George to keep the Pacers at bay after they inched their way within four after being down as many as 13. Then he canned a coldblooded baseline turnaround. After drawing two free throws against George, scoring for the third straight possession, Durant forced the Pacers to switch things up.
That's when Durant became double trouble.
He took advantage of a sagging George Hill and shot a pass to Russell Westbrook for an open 3. Westbrook's shot fell short, but it was a satisfactory set that led to a solid shot.
With six minutes remaining, the Pacers started switching on the screens. George took Westbrook. The smaller Hill went with Durant. Big mistake.
“George Hill is a point guard and I've got him by seven or eight inches,” Durant said. “So I just tried to bury him in the post.”
Durant began directing teammates with an extended arm and a pointed finger. He backed down Hill and shot over him. Though he missed, it was another quality shot for the Thunder.
Later, Durant easily surveyed the court over Hill and found Serge Ibaka on a backdoor cut for a reverse layup. It was Durant's fourth assist. The next possession ended with Durant knocking down a fadeaway jumper on Hill when the Paces didn't double.
Perhaps the most encouraging play, however, was one that ended in an empty possession. With 4:03 left, the Pacers had stopped switching and left George on Durant after the screen. This time, Indiana sent 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert on a double team. Durant patiently read it and then released the ball on time, swinging it across the court to Martin, who was wide open in the corner after the defense collapsed on Durant and a cutting Ibaka. Martin pump faked Gerald Green and stepped one foot inside the 3-point line only to miss an uncontested 2. But, again, it was a perfectly-executed play.
“Kevin did a good job of setting up and getting open and getting wide and demanding the ball,” Brooks said. “And Russell was doing a good job of finding him. And then our spacing was good. Even the shot that K-Mart missed, it was a good shot. It was off of Kevin's post up. And Serge's (layup) was off of Kevin's post up.
“Obviously we can go through Kevin with our offense not just with him scoring but him helping guys get easy buckets and he did that (Sunday). Give our guys a lot of credit, they're developing patience in the post-up game.”
Durant has become the driving force.
“He has worked on it and he has developed it,” Brooks said. “He has progressed every year in that area. It's not that we have to have him score every time. But if he has the guy one-on-one I like that matchup. If the guys double team him he does a good job finding open shooters … He's really seeing the game at a high level right now.”