Durant’s versatility has nothing to do with position, just greatness

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This is not about positionality. It’s not about the transcendence of Kevin Durant’s athletic ability and basketball skill to cross-over to any spot on the floor. And it’s certainly not about the antiquated conditions of position that too often limit where and how we think of players and both their potential and liabilities.  It’s about the individual nature of Kevin Durant, and his progress. A progress that is both terrifyingly supplementary and drastically necessary.

I’ll explain.

You’ll remember earlier this week when the Daily Oklahoman reported on Kevin Durant being used at all five positions. All the talk was of how the young superstar is learning to play different slots on the floor. How he’s learning to orchestrate the offense as a point guard or work as a bigger power forward, a position he says he has to make up for with “heart. ” But the reality of the situation is this. Durant isn’t learning to be Chris Paul. He’s not working on emulating Tim Duncan. And he’s not stretching what it means to be a center. It’s the evolution of his specific game. It’s being Kevin Durant, only wearing different outfits. Or, as a better analogy, it’s a lot like when Mario would don the different suits in Super Mario Bros. 3. Just because he’s throwing hammers doesn’t make him a turtle. Mario is still Mario, and KD is still KD. He’s just doing different things as he continues his role as KD.  That’s partially out of respect to his talents, and partially because those talents simply can’t be transformed.

When we talk about players adapting to new positions, we usually mean they’re actually playing those roles. For example, when Dwyane Wade plays point guard, he’s actually setting up the offense, calling out plays, actually weaving through pick and rolls to find open shooters. Rashard Lewis moving to the three has entirely different meanings than what Durant is doing. When Amar’e Stoudemire slides down and plays the five, it’s because the Knicks need a role filled. That’s not what’s happening with Durant. With Durant, it’s the exploration of his potential as a small forward, or more accurately, as a player. It is, to be honest, a stunningly similar situation to what LeBron has evolved into.

Both LeBron and Durant play small forward, but they’re so much more than that. Because they’re so talented, they receive the ball in a myriad of ways. High post. Wing. Top of the key. Off the cut. Low-post. All of these positions are classically maintained by positions other than the one they occupy. And that’s the genius component. LeBron is able to post a small forward defending him as a power forward. Durant is able to take a small forward off the dribble as if he were a point guard. It doesn’t mean that Durant actually is a point guard, anymore than it means that Kevin Durant is a small forward at this point. He may need to be surrounded by two bigger players, and two smaller players, but that still doesn’t make him a small forward.

What Durant is, is a franchise player and a scoring behemoth. There’s just not a lot he can’t do with his skillset. He’s not the distributor that James is and he never will b.e But what he can do is do what he does (score) in any conceivable fashion. He just has to learn how. And that’s what this is about. Take Chauncey Billups, for example. Billups is a point guard who doesn’t weave through traffic with the greatest of ease, doesn’t whip behind the back passes or fancy alley-oops all that often. But he’s reliable in what he does, and in addition to his perimeter shooting, floor leadership, and system management, Billups can back that smaller guard into the post and bury him from the block. It’s an element that so few of his defenders have. Durant is extrapolating this to its furthest degree. Force the other team’s small forward into a helpless position, be it on the perimeter or in the paint, and you’ve just forced the defense to alter their lineup specifically to stop you. And once that’s happened, as long as your teammates are competent (which Durant’s are), you’ve won the battle.

The biggest element in all this is less about what position Durant is playing, but more about how he’s playing his own. Kobe Bryant took lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon to learn how to better play in the post. Many players look to Mark Price specifically to shoot better. Durant already shoots well. What he’s doing now is learning to do those things in different ways. Again, we’re brought back to what was a very formative experience for Durant, the Lakers series. Durant got the ball in the three positions he most often did during the season. Top of the key, perimeter wing, and extended-elbow face-up. And it was in those places that Artest managed to detonate his abilities. He was limited, because as good as he was, he was only good in three ways, essentially. This new work will enable him to adapt to his opponent. If Durant is “running point” it doesn’t mean that the opponent’s point guard will spend much time on him. If they do it’s because they’ve switched to a huge lineup, not simply because Durant is doing the dribbling. It’ll still mostly be players who can physically match him.

And those players won’t react well when taken off the dribble as LeBron James was last Friday. They won’t be able to adjust to his  post-play or work on the offensive glass. Durant isn’t becoming anything else with this evolutionary position shifting. He’s simply becoming the best thing he can be. It’s a complete approach to the game. And if you’re not scared of that, you live in Oklahoma City.

It reflects a work ethic to deliver the best of what Durant is, not become something else entirely. In this way, Durant is the very polar opposite of Anthony Randolph. Randolph is still lauded as having the potential to be anything, take on any role, yet in reality he’s so incomplete and scattered he’s almost nothing identifiable. He’s nondescript in his prolific near-versatility. Durant is the opposite. He’s able to be what he is in every way, playset, and situation. And most importantly it changes the answer to the question that helped the Lakers beat the Thunder in April. The question was how do you stop Kevin Durant? And with his skillset at that time, there were a series of deliberate mechanisms Artest and the Lakers’ defense employed to limit the things he was good at. But now Durant is learning to be more than those things, even as he remains what he is: the league’s most devastating scorer.

So now the question is: “How do you stop Kevin Durant?”

And terrifyingly, the answer is getting closer and closer to: “You can’t. “

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.