OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant had 41 points in Game 1 and is the league’s two-time scoring champ, but when it came time for the big shot in Sunday's Game 1 win by the Thunder, it was Russell Westbrook who took it. In fact, Westbrook used the last five possessions for the Thunder, with four shot attempts and a turnover, even though a torrid Durant was 13-of-22 from the floor.
That seems terribly puzzling at first, unless you watched what took place off the ball. Oklahoma City had plays designed for Durant to get the ball from Westbrook, but he never get anywhere near it thanks to opponents’ strategy of walling him off the ball in those situations, using superior strength to prevent Durant from breaking free.
“At the end of the game they like to hug Kevin,” said Westbrook, “and grab and hold him, so sometimes I have to be able to create a shot for myself if Kevin can’t get the ball. I definitely try to get it to him but when I can’t I have to get a shot myself.”
Durant, for all his offensive skills, is one of the weaker players at his position physically, and that’s something opponents try to take advantage of by muscling him away from the play.
The Lakers did the same thing to Durant when I was here just after the All-Star break, and while Ron Artest’s superhuman strength makes him an elite practitioner of this art, it appears the Nuggets were taking notes. Kenyon Martin had a similar vice grip on Durant as he tried to flail himself free on Sunday, and it had a similar negative effect on Durant’s touches. I should note as well that this strategy is perfectly legal if the defender can establish a position in front of Durant and doesn’t use his arms to wrap him up.
“They do a good job,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, “of holding and pushing Kevin off the spot. Kevin has to play with a little more force so we can get a better position. [But] that’s a play that’s designed for Russell or Kevin, and Russell has to make the good decisions. They chose to go under Russell’s screen-and-rolls, and Russell can make that shot.”
And at the end of the day, the Thunder got the result they wanted on Sunday night.
“I still try to get the ball, play as physical as I can,” said Durant. “But it’s for either one of us. They went under a screen on Russell, and that’s his shot.”
Nonetheless, defenders around the league are taking notes. The Thunder had a good record in close games this season, but the season-long trend has been that in clutch situations they either struggle to get Durant the ball or wind up with him taking an off balance 27-footer after catching the ball somewhere near the Kansas border.
Having Westbrook shoot isn’t a bad second option, but as Brooks noted, the Thunder have to improve at getting the league’s top scorer the ball in these situations. It’s another hurdle in the team’s development from bottom-feeder to title contender.
“He has to do a better job, and I have to do a better job of setting up the screen so he can come off it with a little more freedom,” said Brooks. “He’s improved in the lot in the four years we’ve had him, his strength is much better, but it’s important that we get some separation so he can get the shot himself.”