OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant ran up to James Harden and tapped him on the shoulder to give him an important reminder for the final few, anxious minutes of the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 2 slugfest with the Los Angeles Lakers:
Durant was taking over the assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant.
While many have failed in their attempts to stop Bryant in the clutch, it was Durant's defense – something he's not known for – that sparked the Thunder’s come-from-behind 77-75 victory.
“People talk about how I score the ball, but they don’t look at me on the other end [of the court],” Durant said after the Thunder took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “But on this whole playoff run I’ve been picking it up on the defensive end, just helping my teammates, trying to rebound, just try to get my hands on the basketball.
“It’s all about growing and getting better each day.”
Durant has grown into one of the league's biggest stars because of his scoring ability. But Thunder coach Scott Brooks also has praised Durant for his improvement defensively. Standing taller than his listed 6-foot-9 height with a wide wingspan, Durant has the physical tools to become a great defender.
And on this night, Durant rose to the challenge when Brooks told him to guard Bryant with about five minutes left. Bryant already had scored 10 second-half points while being guarded primarily by Harden and Thabo Sefolosha.
“It wasn’t the game plan going into it,” Brooks said. “But there was a point in the game when I thought Kobe was really starting to feel it, and I thought Kevin’s length could bother him.”
Durant immediately used his long arms to bother Bryant as he missed a 7-foot jumper with 4:29 remaining. Bryant also missed a 3-pointer with 3:21 left with the Lakers ahead 73-68. With the Lakers up 75-70, Durant stretched his long arms to steal a would-be pass from Bryant. The turnover became a dunk for Durant.
“It was just flat-out risky defensively jumping into the passing lane to get the ball,” Bryant said. “Durant did it and got the steal.”
Harden’s lay-in with 56.1 seconds left brought Oklahoma City within 75-74. Durant then used his length to bother Bryant when he shot a 3-pointer with the shot-clock running down. Bryant’s shot didn’t fall, and the Thunder took the rebound.
“Those minutes late in the fourth, that’s his time. That’s when he thrives the most,” Durant said about Bryant. “Coach told me to switch on him. I just used my length to make each play hard. He makes those tough shots, and luckily he missed them tonight. He’s so good in the fourth that no matter who is guarding him he is going to try to find his shots.”
Brooks said Durant was too unselfish offensively, scoring 22 points on 15 shots. But Durant did what Bryant couldn’t do in the clutch on this night, nailing a 7-foot runner with 18.6 seconds left to give the Thunder a 76-75 lead.
“He is a great player, and he did what great players do,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said of Durant. “He had a great game, especially the last two minutes of the game. Defensively and offensively I thought he was huge for them. He had a big shot and big steal and a great presence down the stretch for them.”
Thunder veteran guard Derek Fisher has enjoyed watching Durant take pride in his defense. Fisher thinks Durant’s commitment to playing both ends of the court is not unlike that of Fisher's former teammate, Bryant.
“I obviously watched Kobe for years become one of the greatest of all time,” Fisher said. “I think Kevin has the same love and passion for playing basketball. Obviously, for years to come we'll see how it turns out. But he's on his way."
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