The youngest scoring champion in NBA history couldn't buy a bucket at the end of last season.
Kevin Durant had taken flight as a 21-year-old, averaging 30.1 points and winning half-a-hundred regular-season games, but he crash-landed during Game 6 in the opening round against the world champion Los Angeles Lakers.
What transpired in Oklahoma City on April 30, 2010, has gnawed at Durant. Actually, the entire series against the Lakers has.
In the 95-94 elimination loss to the Lakers, Durant shot 5 for 23 for the field (.217), which qualified as the third-worst shooting performance in the playoffs for someone with at least 20 field-goal attempts, behind New Jersey's Kenyon Martin (.130) against San Antonio in the 2003 Finals and Philadelphia's Paul Arizin (.182) against Boston in the 1962 Eastern Division finals.
The entire Thunder team struggled to make shots against the Lakers at 39.1 percent for the series, but Durant was the one who repeatedly threw himself under the bus, shouldering the blame. Many OKC players were barely out of college — many still could have been in college — and the Lakers were heavy favorites, but the kid who could have been a senior at the University of Texas thought he was to blame.
“That's crazy,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Everybody has to chip in to help us win. And when they don't, everybody is part of a loss. But I like guys who feel bad, who are disappointed and want to do better, as long as it's within the team structure.”
Winning a gold medal for Team USA alongside teammate Russell Westbrook (and athletic trainer Joe Sharpe) at the FIBA World Championship last summer helped take out some of the sting for Durant, who arrived at training camp in late September still shaking his head at his playoff performance.
This year's postseason figures to be different, primarily because the Thunder is different.
Durant is a better player, and so are his teammates. OKC also is bigger, trading for 6-foot-10, 280-pound center Kendrick Perkins and 6-foot-10, 250-pound reserve center Nazr Mohammed.
Most important, this year's opening round is different because the Nuggets aren't the behemoth Lakers.
Against L.A., Durant shot 31 for 92 (.337) on jumpers and 8 for 22 (.364) on layups. His remaining points came on four dunks and draining 54 of 62 (.871) free throws.
Though Denver has turned it up several notches defensively since its Feb. 22 swap meet with the New York Knicks, the Thunder's degree of difficulty on offense doesn't figure to be quite as lofty as it was last April.
Literally and figuratively, Perkins is a big reason why.
In Perkins and 6-foot-10, 255-pound reserve power forward Nick Collison, the Thunder has two of the league's premier screeners.
Having one – let alone two – good-sized frontcourt players who are ready, willing and able to set picks is an invaluable commodity in the NBA. It supplies ammunition for potentially lethal perimeter players like Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and puts smiles on their faces.
“Oh, they're very valuable,” a smiling Westbrook said of a quality screen. “It gets you open, man. It's great to have guys on your team who take pride in doing that. It's all about good timing and knowing where to pin people at.”
Good defenders have little trouble getting through halfhearted screens. It's somewhat like dodging orange construction cones.
Screens set by Perkins and Collison are akin to a “Road Closed” sign. You'll have to go around.
“Those screens make our offense go,” Brooks said.
Those screens are why Durant and Co. are ready to cleanse the bitter aftertaste of the Lakers series.
Nuggets will use several defenders
Denver uses multiple defenders on Kevin Durant. Unfortunately, not all at once.
In the last meeting, the Nuggets started out with Danilo Gallinari on the NBA's two-time scoring champ, then replaced him with reserve Wilson Chandler. At some point, Denver coach George Karl will opt for Kenyon Martin. Because the Nuggets switch on ball screens, there will be moments Nene Hilario and Al Harrington are found hounding Durant. If Arron Afflalo is able, he'll also get a crack at Durant.
If that six-pack doesn't work, Karl might reach for another.
“They do a good job throwing a lot of bodies at him,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the Nuggets. “They've used multiple defenders, but Kevin's done a good job of handling different styles of defenders. He's a tough cover. He can shoot it deep. He can shoot it right around the basket. He makes free throws. He can put the ball on the floor. He just has to stay aggressive whatever style defender they put on him. Kevin's at his best when he's aggressive.”
Here is the army of defense Durant figures to face:
F Danilo Gallinari, 6-10, 225: This 22-year-old Italian is the same age and roughly the same height as Durant, but not the same length. Gallinari prefers offense over defense. His best option is to swap points with Durant as best he can.
F Wilson Chandler, 6-8, 225: As is almost always the case, Durant has a height and length advantage. Chandler's effort was easily evident in the final regular-season meeting in Oklahoma City Arena, but there's only so much you can do.
F Kenyon Martin, 6-9, 240: This bully on the block knows no fear. His constant contact keeps Durant in check at times, but Durant eventually draws him away from the basket by playing the stretch 4 position and renders Martin defenseless.
F Al Harrington, 6-9, 250: If Big Al stays down low, Durant will draw him out. If Harrington comes out, Durant will blow past him. The key for Durant is staying active. Much like Gallinari, Harrington also prefers to play offense.
C Nene Hilario, 6-11, 250: That's right, a center on Durant. Nene happens to guard the perimeter far more effectively than many backcourt players. Nene had better be careful, however. Kendrick Perkins might set a pick for Durant.
G Arron Afflalo, 6-5, 215: A relentless Afflalo will shadow Durant and get in his grill as best he can. Afflalo is another one of those hard-nosed UCLA guards, but someone nursing a bad hamstring should not be asked to defend Durant.