After Golden State's first win of the season on Oct. 20, the Warriors were in the visitors locker room in New Orleans celebrating Kevin Durant. But they weren't praising him for his 22 points and eight rebounds. They weren't talking about his silky-smooth jumper or his tight handle, either. No, it was the way he had played on defense, swatting away a career-high seven shots.
On one sequence early in the second quarter, Durant's left shoe had squirmed off after a made basket. He had to get back on defense, so he picked up his shoe, carried it past half court, then threw it out of bounds near the Pelicans' bench.
Now switched onto Tony Allen, still wearing only one shoe, Durant battled for rebounding position. Allen came down with an offensive board and went right back up with a floater, which Durant volleyball-spiked back into Allen's hands. With Durant still draped all over him, Allen dribbled between his legs, inched closer to the basket and attempted a scoop shot, which resulted in another rejection by Durant.
Two blocks within two seconds with one shoe on.
After the game, a fan shouted in Durant's direction, "Y'all were setting the Pels up for those blocks!"
It was true. Draymond Green had been emphasizing to his Warriors teammates during the game to avoid cheap reach-in fouls in the paint so Durant could be free for an endless buffet of rejection opportunities.
It worked. And now teammates, opponents and fans are starting to recognize Durant's vast improvement on defense, which, he said, was born out of fear.
"I've been a scorer my whole life," Durant told ESPN this week. "I've been a one-on-one player my whole life. All I've thought about in the past was different ways to score, rather than different ways to impact the game. Since 2012-13, I've been trying to figure out ways to impact the game outside of scoring.
"Defense started to creep in there probably two years before I got to the Warriors. Defense started to become a focal point for me where I wanted to be trusted. I didn't want to be the guy where all the film clips are about how they back-doored me, or how someone drove around me, or how I'm not contesting shots. I was more so just nervous about being called out during film sessions. That's why I wanted to get better."
Durant has been dominant so far this season.
The 2017 Finals MVP has 27 blocks already, second in the NBA behind Utah's Rudy Gobert (28). Durant is averaging 2.45 blocks per game after setting a career mark with 1.6 blocks per game last season. He also leads the Warriors in defensive win shares (0.053) and is capable of guarding all five positions.
Of all the accolades accumulated over his illustrious career, Durant does not own a single defensive honor. But he told ESPN he would "like to be an All-NBA defender." For now, though, it's his fear of failure that's driving him.
"I just want to be counted on by my coaches and my teammates in those situations," he said. "I don't want my coach to have to pull me out of the game in situations in the fourth quarter because I can't play defense and then they need to go to a defense-offense [substitution pattern]. I don't want to be that player. I never wanted to be that player. So that's what I feared more than anything."
On Wednesday, Durant sat out a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves because of a left thigh contusion. He watched a portion of the contest near the locker room in a space designated for postgame media availability. And he was fully engaged with what his teammates were doing on the floor, particularly on defense.
"Get that!" he screamed after Andre Iguodala nearly picked off a pass.
"That's what I'm talking about," he said after a great defensive sequence ended up in a turnover and a transition basket.
Durant acknowledged that the Warriors' personnel has played a major role in his improvement on D. He mentioned how Green is always switching hard and precise, how Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are always getting deflections and how Steph Curry sneakily steals a rebound away by tapping it out of the hands of a big man before he can firmly secure the ball.
"It's contagious," Durant said. "If you're seeing that all the time, and it's creating points for you, that s-- is fun. It's fun when you get your teammates involved on both ends of the floor and you're all as one out there on the basketball court. You don't want to be the liability, and that's what I'm fighting against."
Durant said the Warriors' defensive guru, assistant coach Ron Adams, is constantly in his ear, challenging him to make sure every shot is contested and stressing how difficult it is for opponents to shoot over his 7-foot frame. He says it has been the same message since the two worked together in Oklahoma City.
"The No. 1 thing I remind him of is to use your God-given ability, and more specifically, use your length," Adams told ESPN. "I think he's one of the hardest people to score against when he's focused fundamentally on defending. I just continually tell him to keep using your length, keep using your length, keep using your length. Maybe he gets tired of hearing it, but I don't get tired of saying it."
Opponents are shooting only 50.9 percent against Durant within 5 feet of the rim this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is the lowest percentage in the league among players who have defended more than five shots at the rim, so it would appear the message is sinking in. New Orleans big man Anthony Davis is second at 52.9 percent.
Despite his early success, Durant hasn't been completely able to avoid his film session nightmares.
"We get on him occasionally, and he's very self-conscious," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told ESPN. "He doesn't ever want to make a mistake, and I think he prides himself on his efficiency. So when he does make a mistake, it bothers him. But it's important for us to be able to point it out because everybody has to be accountable. So we'll point that out occasionally, and he doesn't like it, but he accepts it. He's great about accepting coaching and he's an incredible teammate."
Jeff Van Gundy, a noted defensive-minded coach who currently serves as a color commentator for ESPN, has been impressed by Durant's approach.
"I think it's very rare that one of the all-time greatest scorers to play -- and he'll go down as one of the best to play the game -- has the aptitude or the desire to be a great defender," Van Gundy said in a phone interview on Thursday.
"The thing I most respect from Durant is he hasn't fallen out of love for the game. With all the fame and the money, he [still] cares deeply about winning. He has a passion to defend, and I think his improvement on that end has come incrementally. It's not just this year. It's been a step-by-step process. People are maybe noticing it now. He's committed to overall greatness, and to me, that is inspiring."
Still, no matter how superior Durant wants to become on the defensive end, the 2014 NBA MVP understands there will always be a perception that he's only a scorer.
"Yeah, I mean, obviously because of what I look like as far as my length and being this skinny and tall and being able to shoot from so far out and dribble, people tend to just look at that part of my game," he said. "But when I was in college, I led the conference in blocks. ... I had that part of the game, my knack for the basketball, wanting to be around the basketball."
He says he was "kind of" bothered by being labeled a one-dimensional player early in his career but started believing he was capable of more when he gradually received extra defensive assignments in OKC.
"When coach Scotty Brooks trusted me to guard Kobe Bryant in 2010 in that playoff series, that was a big moment for me because he trusted me and I felt like I worked my way up to that," Durant said. "I got to guard James Harden one night, or I had to guard LeBron [James] for a whole series and stay out of foul trouble. That's where I've grown at, and that's from experience."
He credited Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Green for impacting how he views the game from a new lens. He said he observed how Sefolosha was quick with his hands, how Perkins positioned his body as a post defender and how Green's defensive awareness is impeccable.
"What I'm still learning is the team concept," Durant said. "How do I help my teammates, when I'm supposed to stay home, when I'm supposed to X-out when my teammates get beat at the 3-point line, who I'm supposed to short closeout on, what guys I'm supposed to pressure. That's what I'm learning more so than anything. Also, having great teammates who always have my back and always talking me through stuff is making me a more well-rounded defender."
So has Durant grown to the point where he can be a serious candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, or be voted onto his first All-Defensive team?
"Yes, he can," Kerr said. "I think the only thing holding him back is just the attention to detail on a nightly basis that you see from Andre and Draymond," Kerr said. "KD's length and versatility and speed and ability to close ground is just shocking, and when he's on his game defensively, it's amazing to watch. But like a lot of great offensive talents, he might lose focus a little bit and take a possession or two off, and that's what we try to stay on him about. But he's been fantastic."
Green argued that Durant was fantastic last year, too, and should have earned a spot alongside him on one of the two All-Defensive teams. He was adamant that this is Durant's year to end that drought.
"I think it was bulls--- that he didn't make it last year," Green told ESPN. "He was great on the defensive end last year and we had the No. 2 defense. When you have a guy like that where his offense is so damn pretty, his defense gets overlooked. But he is a great defender. With his length and athleticism, he can make it tough on anyone and guard just about anyone.
"So I think it's about time that he gets recognition for that. Michael Jordan got recognition for his defense, LeBron has gotten recognition before for his defense, Kobe got recognition for his defense. Why the hell hasn't he?"