Every coach and defender says the same thing when it comes to defending Kevin Durant: you can't stop him from making shots, you have to make him work for it. Durant will get his numbers, like the 24 points (8-12 shooting) and 10 rebounds he produced on Thursday, but the defender has to limit his touches and make it difficult.
The Rockets in the past, mainly with Francisco Garcia, pressured Durant early and directed him towards their help-defense. To limit Durant's effectiveness, they blitzed early in the shot-clock and put him in positions where he wasn't comfortable catching the ball. Essentially, they wanted to milk as much clock and take away the Thunder's preferred offensive sets -- denying freedom for Durant to make quick decisions.
With Francisco Garcia no longer with the team, it was important that the Rockets found another defender to slow down Kevin Durant. The additions of Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Josh Smith give the Rockets three versatile and capable defenders to make life difficult for Durant on the floor, providing rotation and depth not present before.
Thursday's game versus the Thunder was the first time the Rockets faced Kevin Durant this season. They started Trevor Ariza on him, who pressured Durant constantly and used his length/size to force Kevin to pass. Later in the game, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer were given opportunities on Durantula.
Let's look at how the Rockets played Kevin Durant defensively. How did they slow him down?
The Thunder have Durant in the right corner. An OKC big comes and sets the screen, freeing up Durant to set up on the left block. Ariza hurries over and goes right into Durant, denying him the ability to face-up and use his length. Durant backs him down, with Ariza taking away the right side. This is because Kevin Durant is a much better player going to his right than left, especially on the left side of the floor. Ariza's decision to deny the right gives Durant the choice to either go left (Harden is present alongside Howard) or go right (backwards) and attempt a tough jumper. He chooses to go right, and Ariza forces a tough fall-away.
In this play, Durant and Adams play a two-man game with Ariza and Howard defending. Adams sets the screen allowing Durant to drive right, but Ariza's length makes it difficult to pass and Kevin is forced to back left. A give-and-go between Adams and Durant ensues, but Durant is unable to connect on the corner three. Also in that possession, Ariza's physical and high-energy style disrupted Durant from getting what he wanted -- an open lane to the hoop. Great aggressive defense from Ariza.
In these next two examples that take place early in the shot clock, Josh Smith is defending Kevin Durant. Take a look, then I'll discuss why this is how you shouldn't play Durant on the defensive end.
Kevin Durant is shooting almost 45 percent from three this season, including 40-plus percent on above-the-break threes. In the two previous examples, Josh Smith does not play aggressive -- allows a great player to walk into a shot he's comfortable with. When a screen is set for Durant, go over (NOT UNDER) and allow your team defense to protect the lane if he decides to drive.
Staying aggressive forces the Thunder to become one-dimensional, because they don't have second or third options in most offensive sets. But Durant is a smart player, he'll use the aggressiveness into bait for fouls and free throw attemps. The key is to play straight, vertical defense. Defenders must watch how Durant catches the ball (Screens, picks, etc.) and where (left or right side). Based on their analysis, Rocket defenders can gamble (as scheme is designed) and stay aggressive.
Trevor Ariza played this perfectly. He goes over the Westbrook screen, reaching Durant as he gets the ball on the high-post and pushes him off-balance (loses position). Durant is forced to attempt the Nowitzki patented one-legged fadeaway over great Ariza defense, but makes it anyways.
Josh Smith makes up for his previous mistakes on this defensive possession. He forces Durant towards the sideline, coercing him to take the Perkins screen left. Right-handed shooters don't prefer driving with their off-hand, but excellent work from Smith to bring Durant towards the help-defense. Donatas Motiejunas cannot move laterally quick enough, but Brewer is there to close the driving lane and force Durant into a tough leaner.
Here's the last example from Thursday's game. Kevin Durant has patented a swing move, moving the ball from left-to-right or right-to-left with both arms like a pendulum. The swift movement across his body warrants fouls and places great defenders in foul trouble. Trevor Ariza, however, did not fall victim, for he anticipated the swing and poked the ball away for an easy transition slam-dunk. Durant tried the swing once he realized how aggressive Ariza was playing him, but Trevor's hands quickly shifted to the sides to poke the ball away. Excellent timing and recognition by Trevor Ariza.
The Rockets clearly didn't solve how to guard Kevin Durant, because he still efficiently scored 24 points. However, the continued strategy of playing aggressive and implementing a three-defender rotation will surely allow the Rockets to contain Kevin Durant and the Thunder offense as we approach the playoffs. The key is to disrupt the rhythm of the Thunder offense, force Durant/Westbrook to create and draw them into the Rockets opportunistic defense.
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