Multiple times during Sunday night’s broadcast of the Warriors’ game against the Detroit Pistons, Jim Barnett — NBC Sports Bay Area’s color commentator and a certified national treasure — observed multiple times that Kevin Durant — widely considered to be the deadliest and most proficient scorer in the league — opted multiple times not to score and instead look for teammates to pass to, in an obvious attempt to keep the ball moving around instead of stagnating into an isolation possession.
Durant did this multiple times, despite the fact that he garnered mismatches on much-smaller players such as Ish Smith, and also against bigger and slower defenders like Thon Maker. But Durant didn’t seem to make shooting his primary goal for most of the night. Granted, he does pick his spots and his matchups often, and it has been those attributes that have made him into a beacon of scoring efficiency — but against the Pistons, he didn’t seek out those scoring opportunities like he often does with a shark-like tendency to go in for the kill after smelling blood.
Notice Durant in this possession, where he gets switched onto the 6-foot Smith. Durant can opt to easily use his monumental height and size advantage over Smith as leverage to back him down closer toward the rim and eventually go up for a shot that the smaller guard has virtually no chance to bother. Once he gets the ball, Durant doesn’t even look to score — he immediately scans the floor, sees Klay Thompson positioned close to the rim, and passes to him for the jumper.
It was one of Durant’s 11 assists of the night, to go along with his 14 points on only 6 shot attempts. To add further perspective to his oddly-conservative shooting night, Durant is averaging 18.5 field goal attempts per game — on track to be the highest of his three-year tenure with the Warriors. To go from 18.5 attempts to a game with only 6 is a pretty significant fall-off.
At the same time, however, Durant is also averaging 5.7 assists per game, which is on track to be the highest assists average of his career so far. More so than previous seasons, Durant is looking for teammates to pass to, obviously taking advantage of the gravity and attention he gets from mismatches and double teams. It’s a welcome development, since a Durant who looks to pass to his other four All-Star teammates is well within the offensive philosophy of the Warriors, one that espouses — and counts on — the strength of its numbers.
The Warriors have plenty of players who are capable of bringing the ball down and initiating the offense, including every single one of their five All-Stars. When Durant does the initiating, he does so often with the intent of looking for a one-on-one opportunity. Normally, this is when his knack for isolations tends to kick in, to the chagrin of several vocal fans on social media and whatnot.
In this possession, however, Durant isn’t even looking to score. He sees a curling Thompson and places a pass right to the spot where he is going to go up for a shot, and it works perfectly.
As mentioned above, Durant had multiple instances of garnering favorable one-on-one matchups, but instead opted to set up his teammates instead of taking the scoring reins for himself. In this instance, it’s well justified — he is matched up with Wayne Ellington in the post, with deep position that he can use to go up for a virtually-automatic jumper. But with Andre Drummond’s attention focused solely on shadowing Durant, Andrew Bogut sneaks by him, with Durant recognizing Bogut’s cut and getting the pass to him for the dunk.
Whereas previous post-ups for Durant down low had the sole purpose of isolating him against some poor soul, the Warriors have seemingly been more inclined as of late towards using his post-ups to create opportunities for everyone else on the floor. Durant’s height over most players allows him to see which teammates are open, and his often underrated and understated ability to pass allows his teammates to catch the ball cleanly and score.
But was there such a need for this adjustment in the first place? And why?
Opposing teams recognize the threat that Durant poses in the low post against an overmatched defender. They are slowly adjusting to that situation by often throwing double teams towards Durant, having bigs shadow the paint, or having other perimeter defenders occasionally dig towards Durant. When they do such things, it often leaves one or more offensive players open to take advantage of Durant’s attention-grabbing nature.
When Drummond again shadows the paint because of the threat of Durant scoring in isolation, Looney sneaks along the baseline. Durant’s exceptional bounce pass finds Looney for the bucket.
Much is made of Stephen Curry drawing a lot of attention to himself because of his otherworldly gravity, but Durant himself draws a lot of bodies onto him, especially when he is attempting to drive and make his way closer towards the rim. When he is matched up with the slower Drummond, he gets the step on him. Other defenders collapse inside, while Thompson — aided by a Draymond Green screen — pops out to the right corner. Durant kicks the ball out to him, and the Pistons’ thinly-stretched defense is made to pay.
Again, look at Drummond in this sequence and how he immediately pays attention to Durant bringing the ball down. He is so focused on Durant potentially scoring one-on-one against his teammate that he doesn’t see Looney sneaking behind him and getting the pass for the easy bucket. Durant sees Looney all the way, and his recognition of where Drummond’s eyes are fixated on allows him to set Looney up.
Durant had several opportunities to shoot wide-open jumpers during the game, but he opted to either pass out, or drive and kick out to other open teammates. In this instance, Durant is left as wide open as he can possibly be. But he doesn’t choose to settle for a jumper.
Instead, he drives inside, draws attention to himself, and drops the ball to Shaun Livingston, who proceeds to put Blake Griffin on a poster.
Durant has another potential scoring possession against Maker, as shown here when he gets matched up with him while bringing the ball down. But Durant doesn’t show one bit of an indication to score on his own. He locates Thompson yet again curling off of a screen, and his pass finds him for a mid-range jumper.
Looking at all of these clips, it should be obvious by now that Durant had no intentions of trying to score like his usual self. Hunting for teammates was his sole priority, while shooting and scoring were relegated to being the final options when no one else was open, and when initial and secondary actions were well defended.
On a more personal level, when asked why he took only 6 shots and primarily opted to be a distributor all night long, Durant’s answer was succinct and straight to the point.
“I’m a well-rounded player, and I can still affect the game without taking a bunch of shots,” said Durant. “I thought I passed the ball well. I thought I played a great floor game. I know you’re used to putting me in a box as a player, but I’ve grown.”
Kevin Durant on why he took six shots tonight: “Y’all used to putting me in a box. I’ve outgrown.” pic.twitter.com/AqZIYqGoiC— Logan Murdock (@loganmmurdock) March 25, 2019
And Durant is correct. We’ve all been so used to categorizing him as a scoring machine that we forget that he has grown into a more well-rounded player. Not only can he score in a variety of ways — he can also play the game of basketball in more ways than one. He can choose to score, or he can choose to pass and set up his teammates. He can have the ball in his hands, or be an effective off-ball player. When he is fully focused, locked in, and his mind is set on it, he belongs in the conversation as one of the elite defenders in the league today.
And yet, the expectations that fans put on Durant can often blind them to those wonderful aspects of his game. If he shoots too much, then the offense is too stagnant. If he shoots too scarcely, he’s being too conservative and isn’t engaged enough. If he wants the ball because he thinks he can score or otherwise create a scoring opportunity, he’s being too selfish. If he’s off the ball too much, letting others develop plays and being content as a secondary option or an otherwise complementary piece in the offense, then he’s being too passive.
Are some of these criticisms valid? Yes, to a certain degree. But Durant isn’t the only guilty party who is prone to such habits. Everyone on the team, including the other four All-Stars, shouldn’t be immune to the same criticisms.
But enough about being negative and pessimistic. Enough of looking at the glass half empty.
Durant only had 6 shot attempts. He scored only 14 points, well below his average of 27 points per game — and enough for Barnett to worry about the possibility of that average going down.
But he had 11 of the team’s 31 assists, and only had 2 turnovers. He wasn’t selfish, nor did he stagnate the offense. He played within the team’s mantra of passing up good shots for even better ones.
And most importantly, it led to a victory.
In the end, shouldn’t that be all that matters?
Seventy-three down, 9 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.