There is plenty of video footage out there of Kevin Durant playing in summer leagues, rec ball and, most memorably, at Barry Farms in Washington D.C. over the last few years. One thing that has long made an impression on me is that in these games, when Durant has no real coach, no real offensive sets and nothing stopping him from doing whatever he wants, he has shown a powerful tendency to do one thing: Shoot 3s off the dribble. It is kind of his thing. You can see why: Because of his sweet stroke and extraordinary length, he makes that shot more than just about anybody. When Durant takes that shot, it is seldom under real duress from a defender. But it's just about never the best shot any team can get. Almost no player shoots as well off the dribble as compared to catching and firing. There's very little chance to draw a foul. And finally, he's not giving the defense an opportunity to make a mistake that might lead to something easy -- he's more than capable of either getting a layup or drawing a double team and kicking to an open teammates -- both better options. But it's Durant's pet move, and in Game 4 it worked, as it has in others. But I hope the Thunder don't come to believe they don't need an actual offense late in close games. They do.
Lots of people are talking about how Kobe Bryant has whiffed a few times in these playoffs. People are noticing this, which is good and new, if you're interested in an honest assessment of what's going on. But these misses aren't so different from what has always happened. It's all on video. By far the most common thing in any Laker late game possession, for the last decade-plus, is that the Lakers run an isolation play for Bryant, and he makes something like a quarter to a third of the shots. He's right in step with that in these playoffs. These are tough shots, and always have been. What's not true is that he used to make them all the time. Bryant's true shooting percentage -- which includes 3s and free throws -- in the last five minutes of games within five points in these playoffs is at 51.3 percent, better than he shot in the regular season. What's changing, I'd wager, is that people are more aware and starting to notice the misses more.
Calling an isolation -- a play where, essentially, four Lakers watch -- is the antithesis of telling Laker bigs Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to get more involved. In other words, if you want them involved, run a play that involves them. As it was, the two almost never touched the ball, even when they did try to get position, and finished with a combined two shots in the fourth quarter.
I'm always pining for Bryant to hit the open Laker. He did, to great effect, down the stretch of Game 4, passing to Steve Blake in the corner. Blake put the ball on the floor and nailed a runner. Score one for team ball. (For all the Heat's stars, wide-open Udonis Haslem from nine feet is still a great option.)
John Hollinger (Insider) points out the Lakers have been amazing in crunch time all year ... on defense. And that's exactly where they fell apart late in Game 4: "We have a great crunch-time defense that can't get stops, and nobody is talking about it because they're focusing on the entirely predictable fact that Bryant took a lot of forced shots late in a close game. Moreover, nobody is talking about what the defensive decline signifies -- and one could argue that Bryant's shooting failures fall into this category as well. Put simply, I strongly suspect the Lakers are out of gas. They've used too much energy getting to this point, playing Bryant, Bynum and Gasol maximum minutes to compile regular-season wins and a good playoff seed, and then needing to do it again in both playoff rounds, with no rest in between. Bryant played 40 minutes Saturday; Bynum played 43 and Gasol 39. That's nothing unusual; for the postseason they've averaging 39.5, 38.5, and 36.0, respectively. Against a team full of fleet 23-year-olds on a back-to-back, you can see how that might take a toll. And that it might take a toll, in particular, toward the end of a game in which the best players all played heavy minutes."
Fans from outside L.A. obsess about how the referees treat the Lakers. For all I know, there's nothing to it, and it's a waste of time to speculate without real evidence. However, if there's a person on the planet whose war stories I'd love on that issue, it's Derek Fisher. He has been on both sides many times. Would be fascinating for us, and potentially expensive for him, if he'd talk about it.
When I went to his "Train Like a Pro" session years ago, David Thorpe taught us that a lot of people, when they intend to explode forward, initiate that move by taking a step backward. He calls it the "negative step." Try standing in your triple-threat position with the ball, looking at the hoop, only with an empty pop can placed on the court just behind each heel. Then explode forward. Likely, you'll kick one of those cans half across the gym with a flying backward heel. This is something you can quickly learn not to do, and when you do, you are that much faster getting where you want to go. In any case, I'm telling you all this because Durant has one of the most enormous and obvious negative steps in the game. Called fairly, it would have cost the Thunder a key backcourt call this weekend. I suspect he could learn not to do that easily, which would make him a little faster going past his man, and prevent those awkward calls from stepping out of bounds when driving from the side.
Late in Game 4, Steve Kerr said "you know the Lakers are going to continue to go at Harden with Kobe." Which is true, you do know that. But the weird part is why is that so set in stone? Bryant finished the game 3-for-12 when guarded by Harden. (And 0-for-4 when guarded by Kevin Durant, per ESPN Stats & Info.) For the record, against Thabo Sefolosha, the player with the better defensive reputation, Bryant was 6-for-7, with 18 points. That's not to say Harden is the better defender, but there's certainly no reason for either coach to think Bryant-on-Harden in isolation is a mismatch that favors the Lakers.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.