Doc Rivers said it was done out of complete desperation. The Clippers, facing an oncoming 3-1 hole, threw Chris Paul on Kevin Durant in the hopes that the smaller, peskier defender could get underneath the league’s MVP and take away his ability to attack off the dribble.
When the Thunder tried to take advantage of the mismatch, the Clippers sent an immediate double, forcing the ball out of Durant’s hands.
“Everybody keeps saying it was just Paul guarding me, but it wasn’t just Paul,” Durant said at practice on Monday. “He’s physical, and smaller than me so of course it’s harder, little guys get up under you, but they’re not going to just let Chris Paul guard me one-on-one. It’s a team game. They basically had three guys watching me. They had a guy behind me so when I caught it, they double-teamed as soon as I caught it and when they didn’t double-team, I scored. So people got something to say about the one-on-one matchup which never happens in this league, especially with me. So I’ve got to figure out ways to cut harder and make harder moves because if they’re going to put two guys on me, one of my teammates is going to be open.”
Considering the outcome of the game — the Clippers coming back from 14 down with eight minutes left — it pretty clearly worked. The Thunder offense stalled miserably as they attempted to force-feed Durant and to compound the issue, turned the ball over mindlessly.
“Well, mostly yesterday every time I passed the ball there was a guy on my arm,” Durant said. “I’m 6-9. There’s no way 6-2, six-footers are going to get the ball. So you do the math.”
(I did the math. I think Durant is saying he was getting fouled. But I might’ve forgot to carry the one.)
As David Thorpe notes in that TrueHoop TV above, Durant is the most challenging offensive player to guard because of his different ways to beat you. But by throwing the little guy on him, you at least sort of take away, or limit, one of his offensive weapons — the dribble. Durant’s handle is greatly improved, and his crossover is something that strikes fear in every defender. But when you’re near seven feet tall, the ball bounces awfully high when you dribble, making it difficult to handle against a smaller defender. Especially one with great hands like Paul.
Teams using small defenders on Durant is nothing new. Paul routinely guarded Durant when he was with the Hornets. Jason Kidd took on the assignment in the 2011 Western Conference finals to varied success. And of course, the 6-foot-4 Tony Allen did a very good job for five games slowing down KD. Obviously you give away the fact Durant can simply shoot over the top, but gain a couple things: 1) a smaller defender can get under Durant, making it difficult to dribble; 2) smaller defenders often are given a lot more grace from an official, allowing them to play hyperphysically; and 3) it encourages the Thunder to revert to one of their worse habits — isolation basketball.
“We’ve got to move it. We can’t just sit there and try and force it to me,” Durant said. “Because that’s what they want me to do. They want those guys to front and get up under me. Once we pass it, they’re coming for a double-team and we’ve got to pass out and that’s when we make plays. By the time we just sit there and force feed it down, time is running off and when it’s time to pass out of it there’s two or three on the shot clock. So I’ve got to move around a little more and not demand the ball when there’s two guys guarding me. Just make the defense move.”
Scott Brooks seemed confident after watching the film and seeing the necessary changes to make. And it might not be all that likely the Clippers go to that move unless tough times call for it again. They essentially invited a mismatch and the Thunder should be much better prepared for it this time around. In Game 4, their spacing was out of whack and while Durant tried to pass out quickly to beat the double, there wasn’t enough room.
Jackson and Westbrook are essentially standing next to each other, allowing Jamal Crawford to defend them both. Durant’s at fault here a bit too for rushing the pass, instead of remaining patient and understanding at basically seven feet, he can take one step back and pass right over the top of Paul and Darren Collison. On this particular play, there’s a pretty obvious solution that probably would’ve resulted in two points.
A simple cut by Jackson — hey, off-ball movement! — either forces Crawford to drop and cover him, thus freeing Westbrook for a wide open 3, or a catch-and-drive opportunity, or Crawford stays with Westbrook and now Jackson has the ball on a cut, likely causing Griffin to step up to take him leaving Ibaka wide open for a drop-off dunk. But like I said, Durant has to remain patient here, utilizing his dribble. A fake pass to Westbrook is even better, like a quarterback looking off a free safety to hit the seam route.
Like Durant said, though, look at the shot clock. There’s five on the 24, meaning there’s no much opportunity for patience. The Thunder lost their pace, taking far too long to get into sets, letting valuable seconds tick off as they tried to cram the ball to Durant. It’s hard to take that extra time to back out, absorbing the double, when you’re facing a 24-second violation.
But the attention always falls on the Thunder’s failures in the halfcourt when they lose, because the problems were so glaringly obvious. But you can’t deny the defensive collapse. The Clippers scored 38 in the fourth, shot 12-16 in the restricted area and scored on 18 of 19 possessions.
“We relaxed. And when teams play relaxed, that’s when they get beat,” Russell Westbrook said. “You go to Xs and Os and all that stuff, but we relaxed. If you relax, it never turns out well for you unless you make crazy shots and you can’t count on that.”
Still, it’s hard to snuff out the sting of letting the Game 4 lead slip. It was an obvious opportunity missed, a chance to take complete control of the series. The Thunder had it, and let it go. But they’re moving on, focusing on the positives of their trip to Los Angeles and approaching Game 5 with a clear mind.
“We’ve got to turn the page. We’ve got a game tomorrow,” Durant said. “We can’t keep talking about the last game. We gave it away unfortunately, but we come back home 2-2 and we look forward to playing another game. We can’t keep thinking about this last game. If we’d have won, we couldn’t keep thinking about how well we played because that’s going to take the focus off [Tuesday]. Same way with a loss. We’ve got to get past it.”