Last night, while watching Kobe Bryant’s virtuoso performance against the Suns, I took note of a play right at the end of the third quarter. The Lakers were going to hold for the final shot and of course, Kobe was going to be the person taking it.
We’ve seen the Thunder in this same situation multiple times this year and almost every instance, Kevin Durant walked the ball up the court and got a clear out isolation play. And I’d say the success rate on this scenario was about 10 percent. Rough estimate. For example, I put together this quick video:
Two things to point out before some of you do so in the comments: 1) Yes, these are two different situations. Durant was doubled before he got to the timeline, Bryant got it around the 3-point line. It’s not really fair to compare the two. (But yet, I will.) 2) KD is on the sideline, therefore adding an extra defender and making it a little more difficult to get separation. But my point is, look at the difference. Kobe attacked as soon as he felt the double come. KD passed, then got the ball back, so LA doubled again, and KD passed. When Durant gathers for a second time, he hesitates as Jordan Farmar comes to double. Plus, Durant allowed the sideline to influence him. Instead of dribbling away on the recollect, he basically waited for the double.
So… why? What’s the deal? KD is maybe the most unguardable offensive talent in the league. But in late game/late clock situations, he often struggled. In some circumstances, he executed perfectly (the game Christmas Eve against Phoenix comes to mind). The first reason is because as good as Durant is, his handle still isn’t the tightest. And for good reason. Think about it: KD is nearly seven feet tall. For the ball to travel from his hand, to the floor and back to his hand again, it takes a lot of time and the ball has to go a pretty long way. It’s one of the reasons short players handle the ball a lot better (in most cases) than taller players. This obvious. We all know this.
But it’s one of the reasons Durant has issues in closeout situations. He’s not great at using his dribble to escape a double-team. He’s not great at putting the ball down in traffic and getting into the paint. We saw the Lakers use a flash double-team to get the ball out of KD’s hands. Teams don’t fear KD’s drive, so they play him tight and try and body him. Or they use an extra defender and force him to pass. For instance, what this Paul Pierce game-winner. We haven’t seen the Thunder and Durant get this type of shot, oh, ever.
Now one thing that obviously helps Pierce here is that he’s got Ray Allen standing on a wing. So you bring a man to double Pierce and he makes one pass to maybe the greatest shooter in NBA history. But as you watch Pierce’s step-back – a move he’s done countless times – it makes me wonder why we haven’t seen KD do that very often. Why is it that the Thunder struggled to get the ball in and most times, Durant was forced out to halfcourt and then never got a clean look?
To me, it’s about the handle. If Durant’s drive was in the back of his defender’s mind, they wouldn’t be able to body him. If one of Durant’s teammates were the kind of guy you couldn’t leave no matter what, the double-team wouldn’t come as quickly. KD relies on the pass to create scoring opportunities, not the dribble. Dwyane Wade scores off his own dribble a lot. For example, only 27.7 percent of Wade’s field goals were assisted. For Durant, that number is 52 percent. (KD has improved there though. His rookie year it was 59 percent and in Year 2, 56 percent.) It’s pretty clear that KD likes to run off screens, make a cut or find an open look by catching and shooting. He doesn’t prefer to create as much on his own. And that’s a main reason he sometimes struggles in these late clock iso plays. I know some are probably recalling the play in Cleveland where LeBron blocked him. KD did a great job getting in the paint there. LeBron just made a great play. Plus, one major tick on KD are his turnovers, and most of them came via ball-handling (141 ball-handling turnovers, 89 bad passes, 41 offensive fouls).
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This isn’t a knock on Durant. He’s the league best scorer. I don’t think I need to spend a paragraph proclaiming my man love for KD and how incredible of a player he is. But in tight postseason battles, sometimes you need your star to make that play. Durant really improved at getting to the rim and finishing at the rim this year. He improved his ball-handling from last and that’s a major reason he bumped his free throw attempts. He was able to use that as an offensive weapon to get into the paint and to get a little separation.
But he’s not a finished product. And that’s the point. He has room to grow and this is just a minor thing in the evolution of Kevin Durant. He has every characteristic you could want in a franchise player and maybe the best ones is, he definitely already knows all this, and he’s probably already working on getting better at it.