Kevin Durant's Defense Has Helped Take the Thunder to the Next Level
Kevin Durant is a scorer.
Kevin Durant is an offensive player.
Kevin Durant can't be as good as LeBron James.
In his nine-year career, that's been Durant's standard -- an elite scorer with an inability to guard at a LeBron- or Kawhi Leonard-like level.
The 2015-16 regular season wasn't much different, as Durant's Defensive Rating of 104 was just a single point per possession better than his career rating of 105 points allowed per 100.
But, over the course of Oklahoma City's playoff run, Durant has turned up his defensive focus and intensity.
In a first-round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, the former MVP posted a Defensive Rating of 103 with 0.4 steals and 0.6 blocks per game.
Then his defensive impact took a step back in the next round -- and reasonably so -- as Durant had to deal with the aforementioned Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. In the highly contested Conference Semis matchup, Durant averaged 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks with a Defensive Rating of 104 points allowed per 100 possessions.
However, Durant and the Thunder were still good enough defensively to take down the Spurs on their way to a matchup with the Warriors.
Through four games, this series has been a totally different story. It's a series that -- so long as the Thunder can advance -- would silence those doubting Durant's defensive abilities.
Durant has posted a more-than-respectable Defensive Rating of 98 all the while tallying 2.0 steals and 1.8 blocks a contest. As a result, through 15 games, that brings Durant's playoff Defensive Rating to 102 -- 1.9 points better than that of James and only one point off of The King's playoff Defensive Rating for his career.
What's the secret behind Durant's strong dose of elite defensive play?
He's A Freak
Durant's alien-like figure is well-known. Depending on who you ask, Durant's somewhere between 6'9" and 6'11" with a wingspan over 7'4". But we're used to seeing his physical attributes on display on the offensive end when he shoots over smaller defenders with ease. We haven't seen it nearly enough on the defensive end.
Now, Durant's creating turnovers and making game-changing blocks.
His freaky length has continually forced the shorter Warriors guards and forwards into numerous turnovers, just like this one. And these types of impact plays have led to OKC run outs and baskets on the other end of the floor.
Speaking of impact plays -- Durant's blocks have been even better than his steals.
The Thunder have won each of the three games in which Durant has had at least a block, and the single game in which KD failed to tally a block was Oklahoma City's Game 2 loss.
In the last two, he's been even more of a monster with three blocks in each contest.
But there's much more to it than just vine-worthy rejections.
Even when Durant fails to get his hands on opponent shots, he's still influencing them in a big way. Take a look for yourself.
This table tells us that Durant has been forcing Warriors' shooters to shoot 12.4% below their usual field goal percentage through the first four games of the Western Conference Finals. That's 4.5% better than his mark for the playoffs as a whole.
The spot where he's caused the most trouble for the Warriors is the exact same spot the Warriors usually flourish from: the three-point line.
On shots that he has defended, Durant has held the Warriors to 20% shooting, or 19.9% below their usually three point percentage, which makes it clear that a ridiculous wingspan like his sure comes in handy when running elite shooters off the three-point line.
This concept of running their opponent off of the arc has run from the team's leader down to each of his teammates.
Oklahoma City has done an outstanding job of holding the Warriors below their season averages in three-point makes, attempts, and percentage. Eliminating what is possibly Golden State's biggest strength has caused the Warriors to average over 10 points fewer per game (104.8) than they had during the entire regular season (114.9).
That's why the Thunder have a commanding 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 in Oakland, and why our algorithm gives Durant and the Thunder an 80.17% chance to advance to the NBA Finals.