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How the Boston Celtics Made Kevin Durant Mortal

A Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 26, 2022

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BROOKLYN, New York — Kevin Durant. Twelve-time All-Star. One of the most prolific scorers in NBA playoff history. He now has 4,559 points in the postseason, which ranks ninth all-time. Perhaps the best scorer in the world on any given night.

But for four nights in April, against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, he was mortal. Pedestrian even. In Monday night's Game 4, Durant was better, but it was too late.

It was the first time Durant had been swept out of the playoffs.

Prior to Game 4, Durant was just 2-of-15 shooting with Jayson Tatum as the primary defender, racking up just as many turnovers (10) as points.

Celtics head coach Ime Udoka banked on a wear-him-down-over-time strategy with KD, and after the series, the 2013-14 league MVP praised Boston's execution.

Matt Brooks @MattBrooksNBA

Kevin Durant on the Celtics: "They're just a better team... This is the best defense in the league."

Giving Durant a variety of defensive looks was essential to keeping him from getting too comfortable. Four Boston defenders were particularly effective against Durant: Tatum, Grant Williams, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

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There's a lot of truth to what the Celtics have been saying this series, about how limiting Durant is a team effort. Still, much of the credit for their success has to go to Tatum.

Tatum's elite defense against Durant may have come as a surprise to some. But the defense played by one of his teammates against Durant was an even bigger shock.

Because of Boston's switch-everything style, it was inevitable that Williams would spend some time trying to defend Durant. With Boston center Robert Williams III (torn left meniscus) out for Games 1 and 2, the Brooklyn Nets were prepared for a heavier-than-usual dose of Durant vs. Grant Williams on switches, which seemed like a good thing for Brooklyn.

But reality told a different story. Durant shot just 3-of-9 while defended by Williams through the first three games, tallying more turnovers (four) than made baskets.

For Williams, the key was utilizing his upper body strength and lateral quickness to stay attached to Durant. He also kept him off balance and made him search for opportunities to get to his sweet spots.

"It's just a matter of preparation and understanding there's a role to be done and a job to be had," Williams said. "For me, it's just a matter of staying locked in on the personnel, exactly what they like to do, what makes it better for our team. ... At the end of the day, it's what I do well."

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Most players assigned to Durant are defensive-minded wings. Tatum is the rare exception in this generation of players who can significantly impact a game on both ends of the floor, utilizing his length, basketball IQ and laser focus.

The narrative surrounding Tatum entering the series was centered around his opportunity to join the tier of upper-echelon players alongside Durant.

"You could tell he was extra motivated for this series and that matchup," Udoka said. "It wasn't on one end, only trying to score on him; it was taking the challenge defensively as well as the rest of our group."

Scoring-wise, Tatum more than held his own against Durant in a series that ended with the Celtics' 116-112 Game 4 win Monday. Through the first three games, Tatum averaged more points (29.7 to 22.0) and more assists (8.0 to 5.3) than Durant, and he was just a shade behind him (5.3 to 5.0) in rebounds per game.

But the greatest impact Tatum made was with his defense against Durant.

"I know what he's capable of; I know what he's accomplished," Tatum told TNT following Game 4. "And he pushed me. Going up against somebody like that, I knew I had to be on point and compete on both ends every night. And that was my mentality going in, and that's what I tried to accomplish."

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When Durant had a step on him, Tatum was smart enough to steer him to the help defense.

And while Williams relied on his strength and quickness to defend Durant, Brown leaned on his across-the-board athleticism.

Brown doesn't have Tatum's length or Williams' strength, but his athleticism helped him contest Durant's shots effectively.

In the first three games, Durant shot 4-of-10 against Brown, scoring just 12 points.

Smart, the winner of this year's Defensive Player of the Year Award, didn't spend a lot of time defending Durant because he had his hands full dealing with Brooklyn's other superstar, Kyrie Irving. But when he did get Durant, Smart combined the physicality of Williams with the athleticism of Brown, all while displaying the same high basketball IQ as Tatum.

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Because of Durant's length, the key for Smart was to keep him as far from the basket as possible and direct him toward Boston's help defenders. This forced Durant to become a playmaker rather than a scorer, which the Celtics were more than willing to allow.

Boston's bold strategy speaks to the confidence and approach of first-year head coach Udoka. The execution by the Celtics' top four defenders against Durant was a direct reflection of Udoka's plan.

"He's definitely just as competitive as a coach as he was as a player," assistant coach Will Hardy told NBC Sports Boston two weeks ago. "... Being a defensive-minded guy, he was always so locked in on tendencies and actions of guys he was guarding. So as a coach, his brain works in a similar way."

Against the Nets, it all added up to a series sweep. Perhaps more shockingly, there's now a blueprint for limiting Durant, one of the NBA's greatest scorers, on the game's biggest stage.

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