Here’s a brief list of some of Kevin Durant’s defensive assignments during the Thunder’s recent six-game homestand:
•Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ hyper-athletic nightmare of a power forward.
•LeBron James, the Heat’s do-everything small forward.
•Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers’ lightning quick 6-foot point guard.
•And Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies’ behemoth 7-foot bruising center.
That’s four superstars with four completely different skill sets, styles and positions. And Thunder coach Scott Brooks felt comfortable enough, at some point in each game, to let Durant have a crack at them one-on-one.
“No,” Brooks said, when asked if there was anyone in the NBA he wouldn’t feel comfortable with Durant guarding. “There’s some bigs, some centers, where he might need a little help. But his length...Kevin, he can guard 1-through-5 on certain possessions.”
The success rate varies. Durant played Irving and Griffin decent in brief stretches, he forced Gasol into a big miss down the stretch and he got lit up by James in one of OKC’s worst performances of the season.
But the simple fact that Durant is trusted enough to guard all four – and anyone else – puts him in rarefied company.
James is well known for that capability, and Paul George can likely be clumped into that category. But beyond that? You’d be hard-pressed to find another 1-through-5 type player.
“The unique, special thing about him is his size on the defensive end,” teammate Nick Collison said of Durant. “He’s probably not the most comfortable (guarding big men), but he’s capable because of his size.”
Quietly, Durant has steadily improved his defense the past couple seasons. Beyond the obvious numbers – he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals and blocks nearly a shot per game – Durant passes the eye test.
He looks bigger and stronger. He’s sturdier against post guys. He’s laterally quicker against guards. He’s more consistently in tune on that end, hustling back more often and communicating louder.
Caron Butler, the Thunder’s newest member, even mentioned how impressed he was that Durant was so vocal and involved in the Thunder’s pregame and in-game defensive planning and adjustments.
“He takes pride on that end,” Brooks said.
And because of that improvement and versatility, Durant provides the Thunder with lineup flexibility.
Brooks can go small and put Durant on a big or go big and put Durant on a small.
“Not just guys that can attack,” Brooks said. “He can guard spot-up guys, he can guard pindown guys, he can guard post-up guys. It’s a credit to his growth as a player.”
More than ever, Brooks can dictate the game based off feel and play increasingly more unique lineups, trusting Durant will fill in the defensive holes.
“I think that’s where, really, he’s taken his game to another level,” Brooks said. “He impacts the game defensively.”
Much more than in year’s past.