Column: The Art Of Guarding Kevin Durant

Heading into last season’s home opener against Oklahoma City, Kevin Love described Thunder forward Kevin Durant as a player that has gym range—no matter where he’s at on the gym floor, he can hit his shots. That line has stuck with me every time I’ve watched Durant play. He’s so smooth—so gifted. When he shoots it sometimes feels kind of like those old McDonald’s commercials with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

Friday night was no exception. True to form, Durant put up 36 points so quickly and efficiently (13-of-19 from the floor) that it didn’t feel like he had 36 until you read the final box score. He’s one of a handful of players who has that type of surprise scoring factor—Kobe and LeBron being the others—and it’s a marvel seeing him perform first hand.

He has a wow factor. A style of play and gifted ability that makes fans and players alike step back and scratch their heads when he does the unthinkable.

“It seems like he was unstoppable in the beginning of the game,” Rubio said. “He could do any shot he wanted, even if it was great defense. It was like a scoring machine.”

But it’s also a marvel seeing a team find ways to mitigate his productivity just enough to pull out a win. The Wolves did that in their 101-93 victory over OKC on Friday night.

The first rule in guarding Durant is taking the challenge for what it is. He’s going to score. It will happen. That’s why he is the three-time defending scoring champion and, at 28.3 points per game, is on pace for No. 4 this season. He’s a once in a generation player, and when you face the Thunder you have to understand no matter how you defend him, he’s going to get his.

So how do you get around that? The first step is acknowledging the above statement and finding ways to make every shot as tough on him as possible.

“All you can do is be on his nerves,” Andrei Kirilenko said. “Be physical and make him earn all his points. I’m pretty sure he is tired today.”

A collection of Wolves players found themselves guarding Durant on Friday night, from Kirilenko to Derrick Williams to Chase Budinger. They pestered him, with the help of some well-placed double teams and active hands, to the point where on possessions here or there he turned the ball over (four times) or put up a shot so well-contested Durant couldn’t quite get it to fall.

As the game went on, the defense continued to step up. Durant finished the first half 8-of-9 from the field with 17 points. He didn’t miss any of his five shots in the second quarter. In the third, things began to change. He went 2-of-6 from the field and had two turnovers. Durant got back on track in the fourth, hitting 3-of-4 shots and registering 10 points, but by that point Minnesota began to do something that is also critical against the Thunder.

When Durant is hitting shots, it’s important to keep others from causing damage as well. In the fourth, the rest of OKC’s squad combined for six points, and no player other than Durant made more than one field goal in the frame.

With others locked down, the Wolves continued to pester Durant. Rubio and his active hands got into the mix, disrupting his rhythm and forcing the Thunder’s offensive sets out of whack.

“We did a great job in the fourth quarter of making him make tougher plays,” Budinger said. “Dribbling and trying to force shots. We did a great job on team defense.”

All of this is easier said than done. Durant is so gifted, he must impart a different type of mindset in opposing players. Guarding him is unlike guarding virtually everyone else in the league.

Williams acknowledged that. But he said the key is staying focused individually and working together as a unit. You saw how that worked toward the end of Friday’s game. In the second half, Rubio made some calculated moves trying to disrupt Durant’s rhythm. It paid off.

“He’s a great scorer, so we tried to be more aggressive and we tried to trap him,” Rubio said. “He likes to move when he reverses, and he draws a lot of fouls so it was a little risky, but I got lucky and I got the ball and I could get a steal.”

How do you know when to make those moves? It’s part of the feel for the game—getting an indication of when it’s the right time to strike.

The rest of the time is focusing on making every look as contested as possible.

“Even though he had close to 40 points, it was the shots he had to take,” Williams said. “Even when they went in, it was the type of shots he made. You have to make it tough on guys like that. At the end of the day, he’s going to have 30 points, but it’s the type of shots that he takes.”

In the end, the box score just might be deceiving. It takes a different mindset and a collective effort to guard a player like Kevin Durant, but if it’s done correctly and methodically, it is possible to be successful in the end.

“They did a great job, from Kirilenko, everybody just kind of clogging it up,” Luke Ridnour said. “Everyone did a great job. I know he still shot very well, but it was a great team victory.”

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