But it took some convincing for the NBA’s scoring champion to believe that he could really impact a game when his shots weren’t going in—a lesson that proved crucial to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 27-win improvement this season.
“A lot of coaches say—it’s something I didn’t believe but—`If you do other things, then your scoring’s going to come around.’ I’m like, `No, that’s not true because if you’re off, you’re off, right?”’ he said. “But it does happen. It does help. It gives you confidence that your next shot’s going to go down.”
Durant has been regarded as a potent scorer since he entered the league after being named college player of the year at Texas, then averaged 20 points during his Rookie of the Year campaign when the franchise was still in Seattle.
Defense was a different story.
The SuperSonics gave up the fourth-most points in the NBA in Durant’s rookie year and little changed during the franchise’s first few months in Oklahoma City. The tide started to turn midway through last season but it wasn’t until Durant’s slow shooting start to begin this season that he really bought into all the aspects of the game outside racking up points.
By Game 3 of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Durant had developed enough on the defensive end that he was asking to guard Kobe Bryant(notes) in the fourth quarter. He limited Bryant to 2-for-10 shooting while rediscovering his offense to lead the Thunder to a 101-96 win.
“That’s a very important lesson. The game of basketball, offensively you’re not going to be on every game. It’s just impossible,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
“The greatest players of all times had bad shooting games and bad shooting slumps. He’s done a better job with that this year—but now he fully understands that. You have to do other things that help your team win.”
Durant, who averaged 30.1 points this season to become the NBA’s youngest scoring champion, was quick to shy away from the sudden defensive accolades leading up to Game 4 on Saturday night in Oklahoma City.
“Kobe Bryant is the best player in the world and some of those shots he missed just because he missed. Maybe two or three of the shots I made him miss,” said Durant, who leaped to swat away one Bryant jumper during Oklahoma City’s decisive 10-2 run.
“But other than that, he just missed shots and I know he’s going to come back more focused and more ready for the fourth game. But hopefully he misses those shots he’s going to take next game.”
The 6-foot-6 Bryant gives up nearly half a foot to Durant, who’s listed conservatively at 6-9.
“He’s long. He’s 7 feet. I don’t know that he wants to admit that he’s 7 feet but he’s 7 foot,” Bryant said. “He has great agility, great mobility and caught us all by surprise a little bit.”
Brooks said Durant’s fourth-quarter success wouldn’t change his plan to rotate defenders against Bryant. Thabo Sefolosha(notes), Oklahoma City’s defensive stopper, has logged the most minutes against Bryant while forward Jeff Green(notes) and reserve James Harden(notes) have also guarded him.
“It’s very unique for a team to be able to do that,” Bryant said. “It just shows how athletic they are. … I’ve got a pretty good feel for how to play against Harden, Thabo and Green. When they were in Seattle, Green guarded me the majority of the time. Thabo obviously guards me the majority of the time now, and Harden, so I’ve got a pretty good feel for those guys.”
Bryant took four games off near the end of the regular season to rest a variety of injuries, including a broken right index finger and a sore right knee, and said he still isn’t 100 percent “but I don’t need to be.”
He finished with 24 points on 10-for-29 shooting in Game 3, after scoring 39 and taking over in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
“Playing against guys with the length of Sefolosha, Durant and guys in the past that he’s played against that like to use their length against him, it’s important that he has a base and that he has his legs under him,” veteran teammate Derek Fisher(notes) said. “I’m, I guess, not as concerned as everybody else about his numbers or statistically how it’s playing out.”
Brooks had rarely deployed Durant to guard Bryant during four regular-season meetings or the first two playoff games before making the move Thursday night.
“It’s not easy to make him miss shots, but Kevin has an impact just because of his length and his activity,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to imagine us being a good defensive team without him. He’s been one of our better defenders, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve improved this year is that he’s committed to playing defense.”
The only question now is whether it’ll work again.
“It won’t catch me by surprise, that’s for sure,” Bryant said. “Whether or not it’s effective, we’ll see.”