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Kevin Durant and the dilemma of isolation

“Strength in Numbers,” the t-shirt says.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve lived with Steve Kerr’s motto for years now, and we know what “Strength in Numbers” means: everybody plays, everybody gets involved in the offense, and the team is bigger than any one person. It also means we get to enjoy the likes of Anderson Varejao in crucial Game 7 minutes — sometimes you take the bad with the good.

Isolation basketball, well. The numbers involved there are “one” on “one,” which is the same number twice. Not very strong, and not something we’re accustomed to in Kerr’s offensive system. Yet at times, the grueling series between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets was defined by — one might even say marred by — mano a mano stagnation.

I know what I can do physically ... they did such a good job at switching. I know the whole iso thing was a big thing around our team -- we talked about it a lot.

NBC Bay Area

This wasn’t by accident, of course: we know how James Harden and Chris Paul earned their bucks (and their regular season record trophy). And we know from watching hundreds of hours of Warriors basketball, just as Mike D’Antoni does, that ball movement is key to the Warriors’ half court offensive machinations.

Kevin Durant is much less of a stranger to isolation ball than the rest of the squad — 15.5% of his regular-season plays were categorized by stats collectors as isolation plays, surprisingly about the same as in his last year playing for OKC. In this playoffs, that percentage is up to 26.3% on almost double the number of possessions. (To be fair to KD, several other players’ isolation numbers are up. Assist % is down. The playoffs are hard.)

And, frankly: KD is a very good isolation player. The Rockets were clearly content to play him that way at the outset, and he kinda killed them in Game 1 — because he’s a ridiculous basketball talent that can shoot with purity over any defender — even the centerpiece of The Tuck Wagon himself, PJ Tucker. It wasn’t the prettiest brand of Warriors basketball we’ve become fiendishly in awe of, but it gave GSW a 2-1 lead against the “favorites,” so: I’ll also take the good with the bad, if offered.

Turns out that offer was pulled from the table, and instead we got the bad with the bad. In Games 4 through 6, Durant shot 36.5% from the field, and the Warriors’ offense showed an uncharacteristic lack of rhythm.

For me, after the first two games, I just felt like I could get a lot in the switches and the mismatches. I thought they did a great job ... they started to bring guys over and help and shadow a bit and I wasn’t seeing that for a couple games. I was running into crowds, I was forcing, I was going too fast on my drives and on my moves. And had me just thinking too much out there.

NBC Bay Area

This was all punctuated by Kerr’s somewhat shockingly broadcasted timeout pep talk to KD in which he relays the infamous Phil Jackson - Michael Jordan - John Paxson “who’s open?” story.

The logic behind baiting a star into isolations

The whole situation, along with the above quotes from Durant after their victorious Game 7, reminded me of this great insight from Chauncey Billups about the 2004 Champion Detroit Pistons’ approach to defending the Lakers superteam, as reported by Ric Bucher:

Our game plan was very calculated. We knew we were going to play Shaq straight-up. We knew there was no way we could stop Shaq straight-up. And there was also no way we could stop Kobe straight-up. But, if we’re going to play Shaq straight-up, [the Lakers’] eyes are going to get big, which means they’re going to keep throwing it down there. ...

But what’s going to happen is Mr. Bryant is going to get a little discouraged with getting no touches and now the second half comes around…now he’s pressing. He’s going to start coming down and just breaking the offense. When you do that, you’re done—you’re playing right into our hands. Even if you start making those shots, you’re finished.

In our Warriors-Rockets version of this scenario, Durant is both Shaq and Kobe, while Kobe is (ironically) also Strength in Numbers. D’Antoni and Jeff Bzdelik knew that Durant could cook them on isolation plays, and KD knew it too — a nice pot of honey. But as time went on, KD wore down and started pressing while Houston made those iso plays harder and harder on him, all the while creating stagnation elsewhere in the Dubs’ offense. In Games 4 and 5, like Kobe, the rhythmless Warriors started pressing.

Thankfully, for myriad reasons, the 2017-2018 Warriors are not the 2003-2004 Lakers, and they were not, in fact, finished. Durant came to understand the trap that he’d fallen into, and while it took one ugly half of Game 7 basketball for the Warriors to shake the haze (along with an historically poor shooting night from Houston), GSW and KD came out victorious and educated.

And this is why “Strength in Numbers” won’t go away. Yes, it’s often frustrating and leads to previously unseen and unseemly lineups and rotations, or guys with bad hands who can’t shoot playing critical playoff minutes. But it also helps protect from the unexpected pitfalls of having an exploitable overabundance of confidence and talent.

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