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Warriors’ Kevin Durant needs to rethink his crunch-time offense

At the end of tight games, Kevin Durant chooses isolation shots that rob the offense of spacing and movement.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant is one of the greatest scorers of all time. At seven feet tall (unofficially), he has the agility, ball-handling, and shooting touch of an elite shooting guard. He’s a tremendous scorer at all levels, a good playmaker, and when he’s feeling it, is virtually unguardable.

However, the Warriors have had times where incorporating Durant into their offense doesn’t go smoothly. Whereas the rest of the Warriors are used to the improvisatory, run-and-gun attack led by Stephen Curry, Durant prefers a slower, more methodical approach.

This dichotomy is most apparent in the clutch, when Durant is incredibly deliberate with his actions, often favoring drawn-out midrange isolations. Whereas Curry would prefer a pick-and-roll several feet beyond the three-point line (even though Kerr rarely brings it out anymore), Durant usually chooses to begin his isolations in the midrange with his back towards the basket. And during the Houston playoff series last year and the game against Houston on Thursday, they clogged the offense and were simply not effective.

Everybody knows the midrange jumper is the most difficult shot to be efficient at: threes and two-point shots near the hoop are usually the better shots. But Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are among the best in the league in hitting these jumpers, so the location of the shots is not really the problem with Durant’s offense.

So what’s not working with Durant’s midrange isolations? The first problem is spacing: the Warriors don’t have many shooters on late in the game, and with Durant beginning his offense so close to the hoop, it clogs up the lane. Most teams bring a double-team on him when he posts up, and he’s not a great passer with his back to the basket. This leads to some awkward fadeaways, and even though he hits them better than most, they’re incredibly difficult shots.

The second problem is the lack of motion. The rest of the players on the Warriors thrive with the ballhandler on the move, and because Durant has a difficult time passing out of the double-team, there simply aren’t enough secondary options for these midrange isolations. They’re even less effective when Durant has a good defender like PJ Tucker on him.

Sometimes these plays are okay: when Durant has a shorter defender on him, he can sometimes rise up unimpeded before the double team comes. But he’s such a skilled offensive player that he doesn’t need to make it his crunch-time staple.

When Stephen Curry was injured earlier this year, the Warriors’ offense was incredibly mediocre for a few games, with Durant relying on slower, less creative options such as the midrange iso to run the offense. Suddenly, the Warriors figured out how to use Durant best: begin his offense not in the midrange, but at the top of the key. Durant became a better playmaker and scorer when using the high pick-and-roll.

If the defender went under the screen, Durant could pull up from three. If the defenders switched, Durant could take the center off the dribble. And if the lane was clear for a drive, Durant could take it all the way, shoot an unguardable midrange jumper in rhythm or dish it to the roll man. It was a major breakthrough, and it shouldn’t be forgotten with Stephen Curry back.

It’s not just the pick-and-roll that should begin beyond the three-point line: it’s his isolations too. Durant is a much better scorer when he faces the basket with room to drive towards it. These plays unlock his agility and pull-up ability while giving him a better chance of drawing fouls and easier passing opportunities if the double-team comes. He’s a much better passer when facing the basket than when posting up.

For example, in the game against the Magic in late November, Durant scored 49 points and recorded nine assists through an entirely different shot profile. He ran in transition, ran pick-and-rolls repeatedly, and attacked in isolation from beyond the arc.

Against the Rockets on Thursday, his midrange isolations returned in the clutch, and they might have cost the Warriors’ the game. He had trouble diagnosing double teams and finding the open man, got pushed around a little bit on the block, and clogged up the Warrior’s offensive flow. He did, however, find success when he attacked the basket; defenders like James Harden, PJ Tucker, and Clint Capela simply aren’t fast enough to stay with him.

Part of the problem with the crunch-time offense is not Durant’s fault: it’s Steve Kerr’s fault. At the end of the games, the Warriors should run pick-and-roll with Curry and Durant as ballhandlers repeatedly. It’s been obvious for years, but it’s never stopped working. If the defenders don’t switch, Curry and Durant have both proved they can make ridiculous shots and make the correct passes in the ensuing scramble. If the defenders do switch, Curry and Durant can score in isolation, provided they begin the play facing the basket from the three-point line. In the moments that really matter, Kerr has to put his stars in their best situations and trust that they can make shots. And at the end of the day, Curry and Durant can face up and get buckets better than almost everybody in NBA history.

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