Kevin Durant does not look like himself. In these Western Conference Finals, the 2013-14 regular-season MVP is averaging “only” 21.5 points on 45.7 percent shooting, including 36.4 percent from the three-point line.
He’s attempting just 17.5 shots per game and a jaw-dropping (in a horrific way) 4.5 free-throw attempts. Heading into the playoffs, those numbers were 20.8 and 9.9, respectively. In Game 2, the San Antonio Spurs turned Durant into a faulty mid-range jump-shooter. It was embarrassing.
This isn’t the second-best player in the world performing at his peak powers, and he knows it. Here’s what Durant told The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry after the Thunder fell into a two-game hole:
I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done…We have to be perfect as far as our energy, and our effort has to be there every play. Schemes sometimes won’t work. Our pick-and-roll coverage won’t work sometime. But our effort has to be there. Against this team, you can’t take plays off. We realize that.
There are several areas of Durant’s game that could stand to improve or at least tilt toward normal. The shots he’s getting in this series aren’t awful for someone with his immense skill, but the San Antonio defenders know what’s coming a beat before it happens.
They’re jumping passing lanes, battling over screens, contesting like insane people and making Durant’s life miserable. Oklahoma City’s hero isn’t making these shots, and most of his action feels forced and rigid.
Even if Serge Ibaka returns at whatever percentage of full health he’d normally be, advancing to the NBA Finals at this point is beyond unlikely for the Thunder. But they are capable of competing when Durant is in his familiar God mode, and to get that kick-started it all begins with smarter offense.
Here’s Durant's shot-distribution chart from the first two games. He had only two attempts in the restricted area, and nearly half of all his shots have come in the mid-range. It’s exactly what San Antonio wants.
One of the best things you can say about any basketball player is he makes those around him better. He makes their lives on the court easier and more simple. He attracts then recognizes defensive attention, and instead of putting his head down and stubbornly plowing into a wave of opposition, he acknowledges what’s “right” and creates opportunity elsewhere.
Durant has one more turnover (eight) than assist (seven) in this series. Instead of letting the Spurs decide what his correct play should be, he looks oblivious (even though he's too smart for that) to San Antonio’s defensive strategy.
Oklahoma City is most potent on offense when it uses battering rams in isolation and basic pick-and-roll action with two of the most dynamic players in the world—Durant and Russell Westbrook. It also runs a ton of pin downs for Durant and Ibaka, freeing those two for open jumpers that go in more often than not.
But Ibaka isn’t around, and it's turned Durant into a one-dimensional, “shoot first, ask questions later” player. Here, Durant runs a handoff/pick-and-roll with Nick Collison. As soon as he turns the corner to attack the middle, Tiago Splitter steps up to restrict Durant’s air space.
But instead of hitting the wide-open Collison, who rolls into open space on the wing, the world’s best scorer says "screw it" and pulls up anyway. The shot goes in, but that's far from the point.
Two possessions later, Oklahoma City runs the same motion, but Durant switches things up by going away from Collison’s screen as soon as he gathers the ball. San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard and Splitter aren’t fooled, and both close in as Durant drifts toward the baseline. He forces up an off-balance shot that clangs off the back of the rim.
With these plays, Durant is effortlessly turning his team’s offense into an even less complicated kindergarten class for San Antonio’s defense. Even if he makes all the shots, the Thunder aren’t guaranteed a win.
During the third quarter of Game 2, Durant came off a pin-down screen set by Westbrook, but Leonard sat on it like a defender who just witnessed exactly the same sequence half a million times in the first half (which he did). San Antonio’s most gifted defender lunged at a lazy entry pass and poked the ball away.
Again, this is where OKC head coach Scott Brooks needed to draw up some new looks. They don’t need to be elaborate, just different. Here’s a great example, with the Thunder's Steven Adams setting a flat screen and Durant using it to meander his way into the paint—unfamiliar territory for him so far.
The shot looks difficult, but he makes it anyway. More importantly: This is not what San Antonio wants to happen. The Thunder do a great job giving their best player a running start and space to create—whether it be a closer field-goal attempt or kick out to an open teammate in the corner.
Not all of Oklahoma City’s offensive ineptness falls on its coaching staff, though. Durant needs to make the right play and let his teammates plug their roles. Here are a few examples where he did, and the Thunder were better for it.
Durant flies off a Collison pin down, and as the Spurs close in on his face, he throws it back to the rolling big without hesitation. It’s a split-second decision that forces San Antonio’s defense to rotate along the back line.
And guess what? It works!
In the clip below, watch where all five Spurs defenders are located when Durant slithers his way to the free-throw line. Apart from Manu Ginobili, who’s guarding Durant, every single Spur is either in the paint or a foot outside of it. This is obviously by design; the last thing San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich wants is for Durant to be an arm's length away from the rim.
Durant triggers offensive action by kicking it to Westbrook on the wing, who then immediately swings it along to Caron Butler in the corner (take note, chronic detractors of Westbrook: He makes the right play). Butler blows by Boris Diaw's hard closeout, drives baseline and finishes at the rim.
Action like this has been dotted throughout the first two games of this series, but in order for Oklahoma City to turn these bloodbaths into competitive basketball games, Durant needs to turn his teammates into useful weaponry.
He can make all the 18-foot jumpers in the world, but if Westbrook, Collison, Reggie Jackson, Adams, Butler, Thabo Sefolosha, etc. aren't involved, there's almost no chance the Thunder will win a game, let alone advance to their second NBA Finals in three seasons.