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Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”

How Jaylen Brown snuck into Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show and sat next to Kanye West

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Celtics forward Jaylen Brown has a huge contract extension and bright future.

But he isn’t a star yet.

That’s why Brown, despite his emerging presence in the fashion scene, didn’t get invited to Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show last year.

Brown on All The Smoke:

I didn’t get invited to that one, but I wasn’t tripping. At the time, I’m second year in the league. My merit ain’t like that. I ain’t got the clout. But I’m like, I can’t miss that. They ain’t never had a person of color being a Louis V designer ever. It’s history. So, I’m like, I don’t got no ticket, but I’m going to pull up and just see what’s going to happen. The least I can do is say I tried. I’m from Atlanta, so you know.

So, I had photographers with me, and I had videographers and my manager is with me and stuff like that. So, I had a little group of people with me. So, I said, “This is what we’re going to do.” I said, “We’re going to get in the car. We’re going to pull up real fast, come to a stop real quick. Everybody jump out.”

“Everybody jump out quick. When we jump out, everybody open the door. Slam it open. The driver, you got to slam on the brakes. Rrrrrrrr. Everybody jump out, slam the door open, we’re going walk fast. ‘No pictures. No pictures. No pictures.’ We’re going to keep walking. We’re going to walk so everybody causing a commotion. All the people trying to take pictures. “Who is it?” Du, du, du, du, da. Then, we get to the front. I said, when we get to the front, there’s probably going to be a list.

“Look, there’s probably going to be al list.” I thought the whole thing out. So, I told my manager, I told her, I was like, “When they say they can’t find my name on the list, I need you to go crazy.” I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m surprised, a little small. I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m like, “When you see the list, just go crazy. Act like this is an outrage.”

She sold it.

She surprised me. So, we get to the list. She’s like, “You’re not.” “This is crazy! He should be on this list!” Du, du, du, du, da. And they’re like, “OK, OK, calm down, calm down, calm down. Calm down, calm down, calm down.” Just let them go in. And I ended up going in, and I ended up sitting right next to Kanye and Travis.

It’s crazy, right? I ended up meeting Diddy’s sons in there, just seeing them and saying, “What’s up?” Just walked in with them from the jump and just finessed my hole way in.

Look, I’m sitting right next to Kanye, Travis. I’m sitting dead across from Rihanna. When the show is over, Virgil came out and gave Kanye a hug. At the end, he was crying. I was on like, man, if I was in my right mind, I’d go out there and [hugging motion].

All The Smoke has the best stories.

Chris Paul calls out Jordan Bell for untucked jersey, wins technical that helps OKC force OT, win

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This may be the ultimate savvy veteran play, or it was a guy winning by snitching. Either way, it’s very Chris Paul.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were down two with 1.1 seconds left and had just fouled Karl-Anthony Towns, who went to the free throw line with the chance to ice the game. When KAT missed the first free throw, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders sent Jordan Bell into the game for Jeff Teague — but Bell’s jersey was not tucked in and Chris Paul called it out (you can hear him on the audio) and referee Scott Foster takes notice.

Chris Paul knew exactly what he was doing.

The untucked jersey led to a delay of game penalty on the Timberwolves and, since Minnesota already had a delay of game warning from earlier, a technical foul and free throw for Oklahoma City. Which they sank, so now it was a one-point game, but the Thunder still had no timeouts. If KAT had missed the second free throw intentionally, the scramble for the rebound would have forced a full-court heave by a Thunder player to win it. Instead, KAT sank the free throw, putting the Timberwolves up by two (still with 1.1 on the clock).

Then this happened.

The game went to overtime, where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got hot and scored 11, and the Thunder pulled away for the 139-127 win.

CP3 may have just lost a few votes if he runs for players’ union president again, but he got the win.

David Fizdale wasn’t the solution for the Knicks. No coach is.

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David Fizdale’s tenure as New York Knicks coach fits the pattern.

When Fizdale took the Knicks job, he said, “Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” and talked about building a foundation for the franchise. The Knicks were going to build through the draft, find and develop talent, get players who fit their culture, be patient and build the kind of roster that would attract superstar free agents someday.

Except Fizdale (and management) didn’t do any of that. The same way it didn’t work for Phil Jackson in building a culture and identity for the franchise, or Mike D’Antoni, or Isaiah Thomas or Mike Woodson or Lenny Wilkins, or anyone else the Knicks have had in the coach’s seat or front office for the past 20 years — not so coincidentally how long James Dolan’s has owned the team.

The Knicks’ identity has been not hiring the people capable of executing the plan and/or not sticking with the plan long enough to make it work. The Knicks’ identity has become trying to shortcut the process and take big swings, only to miss and fall short.

Fizdale fell into that pattern. Despite his talk of slowly building a culture and foundation, it wasn’t long after Fizdale signed there were reports Knicks would clear out cap space for LeBron James if he wanted to play for Fizdale (LeBron is a fan of Fizdale from their time together in Miami). This past summer, management hoped Fizdale’s popularity with players could help land Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant. Instead, that duo chose to go to another borough — one where the team had been patient, built a culture, and drafted and developed young players into the kind of roster superstars wanted to join.

The Knicks were the Knicks. Fizdale became the scapegoat, and on Friday he was fired as head coach of the New York Knicks.

The pattern was predictable, as was the fact as soon as he was let go, the chorus popped up blaming him for the Knicks woes. “Fizdale was the problem and now the Knicks can search for the right guy.” Except, there is no right guy. At least there will not be until James Dolan hires a top-flight, experienced executive to really build that culture and foundation, then gets out of the way and lets his hire do it (and by out of the way, I mean lets him clean house in basketball operations and change everything, much the way David Griffin did last summer in New Orleans).

Not that Fizdale was blameless in this or shouldn’t have been fired.

Fizdale was essentially the first contestant sent home on an episode of “Chopped” — he was asked to make a meal out of the mismatched basket of ingredients/players that absolutely did not fit together. A basket assembled by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, a basket with far too many power forward a crop of rookies and second-year players that were going to have prominent roles. Nobody was going turn that group into a competitive playoff team, and the fact that was the expectation of management — and what was sold to Dolan — speaks to the bigger issues.

Fizdale, however, did nothing to turn that basket of players into a respectable team. There are very legitimate reasons for him to be chopped by management — Fizdale did not develop a team identity on either end of the floor, his rotations were head-scratching, and his team seemed listless and disinterested. The Knicks are 4-18, are losers of eight straight, have not been competitive, were blown out by 37+ their last two games, and the Knicks are a team on its way to a seventh consecutive season without a trip to the playoffs, making it 13 out of 16 seasons the Knicks have been home for the postseason.

The Knicks have had 12 coaches in the past 20 years — not exactly a sign of stability and organizational direction. There were good men in that mix. Mike D’Antoni has success in Phoenix before he was in New York, and after he left he has had it in Houston, but the Knicks brought him in and then didn’t build a roster to fit his run-and-gun style. He lasted three-and-a-half seasons, which is the longest tenure of any coach in the Dolan era. Mike Woodson had success in Atlanta (and got the Knicks to the playoffs a couple of times, including the second round once). Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkins are both in the Hall of Fame as coaches.

Yet the organization struggled through all of them. Dolan remains the one constant. We all know what the problem is, but we also know he’s not going to sell the team (maybe spin it off with the Rangers and the rest of Madison Square Garden into its own company, but that’s different from giving it up). There is a status that comes with owning the Knicks in New York City, and Dolan is not going to give up that spotlight.

Knicks fans can hope that a new executive is brought in and is given the real power to clean house — but past candidates for team president who asked for that power did not get the job. Plus, Perry and Mills (like Fizdale) have more than a year left on their contract, Dolan trusts Mills, so expecting a change may be unrealistic.

Until there is a change in how the Knicks are run, whoever is hired to be the head coach will ultimately fall into the pattern of all the coaches before him (or her). The pattern is set. Only Dolan can break it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrated his birthday by scoring 27, leading Bucks in rout Clippers

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their 14th straight victory, a 119-91 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.

Antetokounmpo, on his 25th birthday, made 11 of 20 shots and recorded his 21st double-double of the season.

“I was 25 once, but I wasn’t that good,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after joking that he wanted to see Antetokounmpo’s birth certificate.

Antetokounmpo left the game with Milwaukee ahead by 36 with 8:56 to play. While he sat, the Milwaukee crowd started “happy birthday” chants for their star — and he loved it.

The Bucks led by as many as 41 and extended their longest winning streak since winning 16 consecutive games over two seasons in 1973.

Khris Middleton added 17 points and Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova each scored 13 off the bench for Milwaukee.

Rivers pulled all of his starters out of the game with the Bucks leading 101-67 with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. The group exited to the chant of “Overrated! Overrated!” from the Milwaukee crowd.

Kawhi Leonard had 17 points and Paul George added 13 for the Clippers.

JaMychal Green missed his second straight game for Los Angeles after suffering a bruised tailbone last Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs.