Kevin Durant denied it, and Chris Paul downplayed it.
Doc Rivers dismissed it, and Scott Brooks didn’t address it before getting another look the next day.
Of course, it was all a dog and pony show, a collective attempt to avoid disparaging the league’s Most Valuable Player or fueling him for the remainder of the Western Conference semifinals.
But after Paul clamped down on Durant in the fourth quarter and spurred his Los Angeles Clippers to a pivotal comeback win in Game 4, no one needed to explain what was understood. Durant had again struggled against a smaller defender.
What we witnessed Sunday was nothing new. It’s an issue that dates back to at least the 2011 playoffs and one that has, at times, managed to disrupt the entire Thunder offense.
Paul joined Tony Allen, Jason Kidd and Mario Chalmers as players who have flustered Durant in the playoffs. Others have done the same in spurts in the regular season.
Rivers, the Clippers coach, said he resorted to the unconventional defensive scheme out of desperation and claimed he doesn’t plan on reverting to the same strategy as this series snakes on with Game 5 on Tuesday night. But the truth is it’s long been one of the more effective counters for the league’s most lethal scorer.
The reasons are plenty. Smaller defenders are able to use their shorter stature and quick hands to take away Durant’s dribble and prevent his driving ability. Double teams are frequently being sent at Durant, keeping him playing against multiple defenders. And Durant has yet to commit to using his size advantage in the post.
When combined, it’s turned Durant from a deadly scoring threat into a more indecisive and turnover-prone player.
Take Sunday’s fourth quarter, for example. Paul was Durant’s primary defender on seven possessions in the period. The Clippers doubled Durant on four of those. Durant went 0-for-1 with two turnovers in those instances.
A day later, Durant was just as defiant as he was following Sunday’s game about Paul’s defensive impact.
“Everybody keep saying it was just Paul guarding me,” Durant said. “It wasn’t just Paul. I mean, he’s physical. He’s smaller than me, of course, so it’s harder when little guys get up under you. But they’re not just going to let Chris Paul play me one-on-one. That’s a team game. Basically, they’ve got three guys watching me. They had a guy behind me. And when I caught it, they double teamed as soon as I caught it. And when they didn’t double team I scored.”
The Thunder compounded the problem by force-feeding Durant at the high post. And while seemingly set on proving that Paul couldn’t cover Durant, the Thunder saw its offense bog down and be forced to play deep into the shot clock on multiple trips.
“We got to move (the ball),” Durant said. “We can’t sit there and just try to force it to me. Because that’s what they want. They want those guys to front and get up under me and once they pass it they’re coming for a double team and we got to pass out.”
Brooks accepted a portion of the blame in that regard.
“I can do a better job of some of our play-calling,” he said. “We can do a better job of setting screens…We have to do a better job of being able to react to the double teams, being able to capitalize on their decisions to double team Kevin or Russell (Westbrook) 17 or 18 feet out.”
That goes back to Durant.
On Sunday, he was either slow to recognize where the double team was coming from or sloppy with passes when secondary defenders did come. It resulted in passes that were picked off.
But Durant on Monday insinuated that he was being fouled on his turnovers.
“Mostly yesterday every time I passed the ball it’s a guy on my arm,” Durant said. “I’m 6-9. There’s no way a 6-2, 6-footer is going to get the ball. So you do the math.”
Brooks seemed to hint the same after the game when he responded to a question about why Durant wasn’t able to make Paul and the Clippers pay more by saying, “It was physical out there, I’ll just say that. It was physical.”
Still, there’s enough of a sample size with smaller defenders on Durant to know by now that what occurred Sunday wasn’t simply a coincidence.
Durant and the Thunder must concoct a remedy soon.
“We got to punish them for it,” said Thunder guard Reggie Jackson. “Size difference. Everybody sees it. Got to find ways to get him the ball easier. And if they double, just make them pay.”