Kevin Durant is being treated like basketball royalty today — he stepped up like a superstar should. With the game on the line, he asked to cover the other team’s best player. He went mano a mano with Kobe Bryant. That takes stones. He deserves the praise.
And the Thunder won. That is ultimately how we measure success. We see these things as black and white that way.
“It was a matchup that caught me by surprise. I think he did a great job,” Bryant said in his post-game press conference.
But what exactly did Durant do? Thanks to our friends at Synergy I rewatched every Kobe Bryant shot with Durant on him in the fourth. And as it always, things are not black-and-white so much as shades of grey. Durant deserves credit, but Kobe was passive and has hit many of those shots.
Durant didn’t take on Kobe until just more than nine minutes left in the game (Kobe’s first three shots of the fourth were against James Harden, where he was 1 of 3 but had looks he normally drains). What follows is a breakdown of the seven Bryant fourth quarter attempts where Durant was on him.
1. Kobe is isolated on the weakside wing, gets the ball then tries to drive Durant to the left to the middle of the court, the free throw line, then spins back to the elbow for a quick shot. Most defenders are nowhere near this and Kobe gets an unobstructed look, but Durant’s length makes it a shot he can contest. Kobe hits the back rim. Kobe’s shot was long all night, particularly in the fourth.
2. Kobe gets the handoff on the left wing then kind of dribbles until he gets a clear out, makes a couple of more dribbles like he’s going to make a move then goes the quick-release pull-up three. Durant contests and the shot misses. Not a great look, no motion in the Lakers offense, but Kobe has hit those.
3. The Lakers actually got the ball to Pau Gasol on the low block, he goes to the middle and draws three defenders so he kicks out to Fisher in the corner, who hesitated just enough for a defensive recovery. Fisher needs a bailout so he throws to Kobe on the high left wing, who launches a catch-and-shoot three from three feet behind the arc. Back rim again. Not a good shot for that possession again.
4. Just 5:30 and left and Kobe really tries to take him here — and Durant does his best defensive job of the night. From the top of the key Kobe drives left, then quickly comes behind his back to the right — and Durant is right with him, cutting off the lane. So Kobe steps back and goes to more of a power-drive left where once he gets to the baseline 12 feet out he tries a fade away, but Durant is not only there he blocks it. That was great defense from Durant.
5. Next possession and the Lakers offense is stagnant, they can’t get the ball inside with a post pass (it’s amazing how bad the Lakers guards are at that) and nobody creates a shot outside, so it is kicked to Kobe and he goes with another catch-and-shoot long three with Durant contesting, Flat and a miss.
6. The Lakers went away from Kobe for the next four minutes, and are now down four with less than a minute to go. This time after nothing develops for the Lakers on the strong side it becomes a weakside isolation for Kobe, again a couple steps beyond the arc. He takes one hard step to get Durant to step back then goes for the pull-up three. Contested and back rim.
7. Westbrook misses and Kobe gets the rebound and just races in transition. Durant is back and tries to pick him up a the free throw line but Kobe is going too fast with a full head of steam, gets by and lays it in, the block is just late.
So what did Durant do? He has quick enough feet to take away easy driving angles, and the Lakers not once came out and set a high pick for Kobe to come off of so he could get an angle. It was isolations. Durant’s length meant he could at least get a hand up on all these shots, sometimes making Kobe adjust. Durant did as well as could be done on Kobe late game.
But Kobe has also hit some of those shots before, we’ve all seen him drain those long threes. But he (and all the Lakers) were passive, settling for jumpers. It’s not good offense, but it works often enough for them. The Thunder would rather have the Lakers shooting those jumpers rather than getting the ball inside. But be careful what you wish for, the Lakers can hit those shots. It will be interesting to see if they do next game.