Kevin Durant is the second-best basketball player on planet Earth. I imagine there could be some sort of debate on this, but I haven’t heard or seen a good argument for anyone this side of Lebron James being better, and in fact, there’s a real argument that Durant is the best purely offensive player in the NBA today. That preamble is there to remind us that when Kevin Durant scores a season-high 41 points, including 28 in the second half and 18 in the fourth quarter alone, against anyone, it isn’t automatically a defensive disaster that led the way to such a result. On Wednesday night, Durant accomplished just that, but when the Atlanta Hawks’ biggest pre-season concern was defending wing scorers, it begs the question of whether Durant’s dominance was more about defensive failure by Atlanta or offensive excellence by Oklahoma City in the person of Kevin Durant.
Entering the game, the Atlanta Hawks were an outstanding 5th-best in the NBA in overall defensive efficiency, allowing just 98.4 points per 100 possessions. On Wednesday night, Oklahoma City posted a 103.1 offensive efficiency rating, and while that is a significant departure for the norm established by Atlanta through 22 games, it is also far below OKC’s league-leading offensive rate of over 111 points per 100 possessions. Basically, this tells us that, overall, the Hawks team defense wasn’t atrocious last night, but that wasn’t the biggest question, so let’s take a quick look at Kevin Durant’s individual numbers from Wednesday.
- 4-for-4 on shots at the rim (up from 74% on the season)
- 1-for-1 on shots from 3-9 feet (up from a career-high 57% this season)
- 3-for-4 on shots from 10-15 feet (up from another career-high 57% this season)
- 2-for-5 on shots from 16-23 feet (up from 36% on the season)
- 4-for-8 on three-point attempts (up from 43% on the season)
- 40.2% usage rate (up from 28.4% this season)
At first glance, this doesn’t look like a positive outlook for the way that Atlanta defended Durant, as he managed to surpass every single statistical shooting measure. The best statistical measure in Atlanta’s favor was their ability to push Durant further from the rim, as he only managed to attempt 4 shots at the rim (he averages over 5 per game), 1 shot from 3-9 feet (he averages nearly 2), and 5 shots from 16-23 feet (up from his normal 3.5 on the lowest percentage shot in basketball). With that said, all of thest things also don’t take into account that, for one night, Kevin Durant can and will decide that he can’t be guarded by any human being, and I firmly believe this was the case.
On the Hawks side, they threw a steady diet of defenders at Durant, and no one seemed to be able to contain him. Deshawn Stevenson is easily the most potent wing defender on the roster, and in all fairness to Deshawn, nearly his entire worth to the 2012-2013 Atlanta Hawks rests on his defensive ability when compared to his teammates. Now that we have that out of the way, Stevenson had no chance on this night. After having played on Tuesday night (something Larry Drew didn’t want to do, but was forced to do as a result of injuries), Stevenson managed to stay on the court for only 21 minutes and while he proved to be the most capable of at least shadowing Durant, Kevin’s pure length and size were on display as he shot jumpers at will over the 6’5 Stevenson. Josh Smith and Anthony Tolliver provided more length against Durant in limited deployment, and while that is certainly an asset, neither player is particularly capable of following Durant around screens and/or limiting his penetration. Finally, Kyle Korver took a shot at Durant, and frankly wasn’t able to limit any aspect of Durant’s offensive array with particular effectiveness. Korver has proven himself to be a better defender this season than most of us ever expected him to be, but when an image of Korver isolated on Durant flashes across the court, fear is the correct emotion.
Overall, Atlanta’s defense on Kevin Durant wasn’t excellent on Wednesday night… but it also wasn’t, in any way, deplorable. Durant took over the game, especially in the second half, in a way that very, very few people in the league could have done, and it almost would not have mattered who was defending him for much of that barrage. Make no mistake, wing defense against elite-level scorers is a continuing weakness of Atlanta, and it will be for the duration of the season. It’s a delicate balance that Larry Drew must tinker with when considering Stevenson’s lack of overall contribution (but relative defensive prowess) against smaller line-ups including two of the Teague/Harris/Williams duo and/or the continued deployment of Korver and a healthy Anthony Morrow. I look forward to nearly sixty more opportunities to evaluate this conundrum, but on the bright side for Atlanta, there’s only one Kevin Durant, and we’ve seen the last of him for the season.