Since he entered the league and established himself as a premier scorer, Thunder star Kevin Durant has faced unique defensive gameplans and near-constant double-teams.
But nothing likely compares to the second-round series against Memphis last season.
Russell Westbrook was sidelined, and then-Memphis coach Lionel Hollins cooked up an all-hands-on-deck storm to counter Durant’s one-man offensive show. Pressure came from everywhere. Help came from nowhere.
Durant still got his numbers — a 29-point average in the five games — but it was done in a tiring and inefficient way.
For the series, Durant shot 42 percent. In the four losses, he shot 39 percent. In the elimination game, he went 5-of-21.
And his struggles were particularly evident down the stretch. He averaged 46 minutes per game in the series, playing all 48 in the final two. And his late-game productivity suffered from it.
In the last three losses, Durant went a combined 4-of-22 in the fourth quarters, scoring only nine points.
“I gave it all I had for my team,” a clearly exasperated Durant said upon elimination. “I left it all out on the floor.”
It was his — and the Thunder’s — first taste of life without Westbrook. And with only one established perimeter threat, Memphis was able to sic Tony Allen on Durant and ratchet up the stress level behind him. Hands, arms, tipped passes, turnovers, missed shots. OKC averaged 89.6 points in the series and never shot better than 43 percent.
But from those struggles emerged a better Durant. He came back this season as a noticeably improved playmaker, identifying double-teams earlier and picking apart overloaded defenses far easier.
In 2013-14 — his best season to date — Durant averaged 5.5 assists, nearly a full assist better than his previous career-high.
“A lot of it has to do with his experiences of seeing it,” Brooks said of Durant’s improvement against unique defensive looks. “And a lot of it has to do with his skill level.”
This time around, Durant will likely get a somewhat similar treatment. Tayshaun Prince will start on him, Allen will get a crack at it and the weak-side pressure will be plentiful.
But Durant’s improved vision and Westbrook’s return to the lineup present new challenges for the Grizzlies. In the 57 minutes Westbrook played against Memphis this season, the Thunder averaged 130.4 points per 100 possessions. Small sample size, but an extremely proficient scoring rate.
Westbrook provides another on-court distraction and alleviates pressure. For stretches, Allen will be tasked with slowing him, meaning less time for the defensive menace to be in Durant’s grill.
All year-later developments that would seem to favor the Thunder.
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