As the Thunder-Nuggets series finally resumes with Game 2, Wednesday night's second act inside Oklahoma City Arena will be all about adjustments.
But for Denver, which seeks to even this series before it moves to the Rocky Mountains, there appears to be only one logical strategy.
Double-teaming Kevin Durant.
In the opening game, Oklahoma City's star exploded for 41 points, a playoff career high. The Nuggets had no answer for Durant.
And they might not be able to find one.
Nuggets coach George Karl is hesitant to send multiple defenders Durant's way out of fear of putting his team in a compromising position closer to the basket. But Karl might not have a choice. Each Nuggets defender that had a shot at guarding Durant individually Sunday — Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenyon Martin and Raymond Felton — got lit up.
Denver's lone hope of slowing Durant seemingly lies in flooding him with added attention.
“You got to make that kid do something different,” said Martin. “He's too good at scoring the basketball.
“I would make him pass the ball. I'm not (about) to let him play one-on-one. The kid's too good. He's the two-time scoring champion. He's been playing one-on-one a long time. You can tell.”
Here's Denver's biggest problem, though. Durant has become dangerous as a playmaker. And it's now Durant's passing that could be what decides Game 2.
It's an ironic twist to a season that began with Durant drilling on the same skill that many observers figured futile. But these playoffs thus far have been about the stars shining, about Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard and LeBron James and Chris Paul carrying their teams with eye-popping performances. If the Nuggets have any chance, they'll have to stop Durant from averaging 40 in this series.
Doubling is the best way of doing that.
“Make him do the things that didn't get him drafted,” said Martin, who openly disagreed with his coach's defensive theory. “Scoring got him drafted. They didn't draft Kevin Durant because he's an excellent passer or because he's a lockdown defender. I know this for a fact. I'm not the GM here, or when they were in Seattle. But one thing I do know, that ain't why he got drafted.”
Martin is matter-of-fact in sharing his belief. To back his theory, the Nuggets' power forward points out that Durant had just two assists. Coupled with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder got 72 points and nine assists out of its All-Star duo.
“Where there's a will there's a way,” Martin said of doubling Durant. “You figure a way out. Ain't no excuses. There's no ‘can't' in this league. Can't? How do you know? You ain't tried it.
“If they got him and Westbrook on the court at the same time and (Thabo) Sefolosha and (Kendrick) Perkins and (Serge) Ibaka, make Perkins and Ibaka and Sefolosha make plays. Run somebody at these guys. We don't let Kobe play one-on-one when we play him, no matter where he is on the court. So why would you let Kevin Durant play one-one-one?”
All fair points. All arguments for which Karl is paid handsomely to lay awake a night pondering.
But Durant spent 89 games, including the preseason, grooming for moments like these. When fans and media types questioned Thunder coach Scott Brooks for trying to bring out Durant's playmaking skills, it was sensible forward-thinking to these very situations that made it all worth our while.
Now, the payoff might finally be ready to arrive.
“Teams that double team him, it's to our advantage,” Brooks said of Durant. “It's a gamble. It takes another defender away from the basket so they're playing three on four. But more importantly, KD makes passes. And I think it helps that with his length he can make passes over (power forwards) and (centers).”
There is no doubt that after Game 1 the Thunder must receive better contributions from its role players. Ibaka and James Harden, the Thunder's third and fourth scoring options, combined to shoot 2 for 13 from the field. Durant and Westbrook aren't likely to continue to be able to carry them by scoring 72 points between them. Getting others involved might mean playing through Durant.
Durant appears ready. He began his fourth NBA season playing with the ball in his hands more than ever. He was asked to make plays. Between being a ballhandler and being deployed at different positions, Durant's growth this season helped to turn the Thunder's offense dangerous.
But Durant went on the record with his personal challenge for the year on Oct. 2, saying he wanted to have more assists than turnovers. After totaling 40 more turnovers than assists last year and as a rookie, and 20 more giveaways than helpers as a sophomore, Durant came just five assists shy this season.
The experiment, however, took flight in earnest in the Thunder's second preseason opener against Miami on Oct. 8 inside Kansas City's Sprint Center. Durant toyed with Heat forward and reigning back-to-back league MVP LeBron James. Durant played point guard, orchestrating the offense and using length and versatility to at times humiliate James.
The Heat won, 103-96, but it set the stage for Durant to dominate James in the second regular-season meeting at Miami, a 96-85 Thunder win that equated to round three. Durant led all scorers with 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting. James had just 19 points on 8-for-21 shooting. Durant had a game-high six assists. James had just three.
That was in March. Much of the season's first two months, however, weren't so pretty.
Durant spent the early stages of his playmaking development dribbling off his foot, overpassing and driving into offensive fouls. The offense suffered for it, getting mostly low-percentage or hurried shots if not stalling out completely.
Durant wasn't playing instinctively. It proved not all of his skills came naturally.
“I wasn't finding a man quick enough and I would hold the ball too long,” Durant remembered. “But now I'm just making a quick pass and not trying to force anything. Sometimes you might have to force the issue a little bit to get where you want to get. But I pick and choose my spots.”
As Durant struggled before our eyes, many observers called for the coaching staff to revert to simply running him off screens. That strategy, after all, was always when Durant was at his best. But he never would have blossomed into a complete player that way. Never would have reached his full potential.
Because of those growing pains, Durant is now able to shred Denver in Game 2 if the Nuggets do send a nightly dose of double teams.
Flash back to Christmas. By then, after such a shaky start, Durant had graduated as a playmaker. Against the Nuggets on Christmas night, Durant made Denver pay as soon as soon as Karl ran multiple defenders in Durant's direction.
Durant entered the fourth quarter sitting on 40 points. The Nuggets quickly began sending double and even triple teams toward Durant. Despite having a shot at scoring 50, which he has never done, Durant gladly deferred, gift-wrapping passes to his teammates on time and on target. He embraced the Nuggets' pressure then promptly swung the ball to set up quality shots for his teammates. Durant had as many assists in that final period (two) as shot attempts.
So while the Nuggets might try again to make Durant do something he wasn't drafted to do, Denver might quickly realize how far he's come since 2007.