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FILM STUDY: Kevin Durant’s rim protection is adding new dynamic to Nets’ defense

Rise up! That freakish wingspan and great timing are helping Kevin Durant on defense as well as offense

Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Every superstar has a game-breaking ability. LeBron James’ athleticism. Steph Curry’s shooting. Nikola Jokić’s passing. For Kevin Durant, it’s his absurd size and length. Aided by those freakishly long arms, he’s able to use the skills of a guard to rise up and fire over any defender.

What he doesn’t get as much credit for, however, is how that 7’ 5” wingspan helps him be a deterrent on defense. Durant’s prime years as a rim protector came in Golden State, where he posted Block Percentages of 2.4 percent and 2.5 percent (ranking in the 97th and 100th percentiles) en route to his two NBA Championships.

In the midst of a tumultuous debut season in Brooklyn, Durant is starting to regain his shot-blocking form. He’s back in the 97th percentile of Block Percentage, this time at 1.9 percent. When he’s on the floor, opponents shoot 2.8 percent worse at the rim, which puts during in the top fifth of the league in that category,

For the Nets, a team whose struggles on the defensive end of the floor have been well-documented, a revitalized defensive game from one of their best players is sure to be a welcomed sign in the quest for a championship this summer.

Similarly to his years in The Bay, the main way Durant is making an impact as a shot-blocker is from the weak side. Due to his slim frame, he’s usually not going to be meeting players at the rim Bam Adebayo-style. More often than not, he’s going to be coming over from the opposite side to emphatically slap the ball away.

The Nets have used this strength to their advantage when matched up against the league’s best at the center position. The challenge with these players is finding defenders that can match their size and physically without giving up much athleticism. The Nets best bet has been Blake Griffin, a stocky power forward-turned center who can hang with lumbering big men in the post as well as provide some lateral quickness. Still, Griffin is well past his athletic prime and is prone to getting beat off the dribble. That’s where Kevin Durant (who it must be noted is the same age as Griffin) comes in.

In the example above, Zach LaVine comes off of a screen from Nikola Vučević, but the big man opts to “pop” to the three point line instead of rolling to the basket. Griffin has to respect the 40 percent deep shooter, but gets caught out of position when closing out too hard. Luckily, Durant is able to clean up the mistake and meet Vučević at this apex for the rejection.

This concept isn’t only applicable to screening actions, and the Nets have defended the post using a similar combination.

Here, Blake Griffin is once again matched up with a European center - the presumptive MVP, Nikola Jokic. Jokic will dominate in the post by using his weight to throw defenders off of their center of gravity, but Griffin is able to match him step-for-step. And once again, Durant will come over to help once Jokic has fully committed to his upward motion. He ultimately passes to JaMychal Green under the rim, but KD is already in the area - and it’s a swat.

I’d like to see the Nets employ this strategy against some of the best in the East, namely Joel Embiid. The Nets have struggled with Embiid in the past, often just opting to put DeAndre Jordan on him and living with the results. But when the Nets “stay ready” squad made a late-game comeback in Philadelphia just a few weeks ago, the coverage reflected this one. Alize Johnson - an shorter, but active player - was put on Joel Embiid while Nic Claxton — a long, rangy big — checked Ben Simmons. Claxton would double Embiid, and his length combined with Johnson’s physicality made life difficult for the All-Star center. The Nets could try a similar coverage with Griffin playing the role of Johnson and Durant being the help defender, like Claxton.

Having Durant guard a power forward also allows him to be a bigger body to scram switch onto bigs after the Nets switch PnR. A scram switch is a switch of defensive assignment by two off ball players, usually without a screening action to bring them near each other. It’s done to eliminate a mismatch, or at least have defenders that match up slightly better with the involved offensive players.

In the example below, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving execute a scram switch after Kyrie Irving gets matched onto Nikola Jokić. It’s risky since Jokić is one pass away and the obvious pass to make, but hesitation from Facundo Compazzo allows Durant to arrive just as the Serbian big man is settling into his shooting motion. With help from those aforementioned freakishly long arms, Durant is able to contest Jokić’s shot from the midrange, an area he is usually quite precise in - 55 percent on average!

Lastly, KD is proving that he can handle himself in a one-on-one matchup when necessary as well.

He put Keldon Johnson in jail on Wednesday against the Spurs, with Johnson shooting 1-for-6 from the field when matched up with Durant per’s tracking data.

Johnson tried his signature crossover move in an attempt to get separation, but Durant wasn’t having any of it. He had a hand on the ball before Johnson’s upward motion even began, and by then it was too late for the young Spur.

Durant’s not going to be able to lock up a player like Jokic, or anything close to it. But holding his own in crucial moments is all you can ask for in this situation. KD smartly gets his hands out of the cookie jar when the soon-to-be-MVP swipes through, and is able to get in his face on the hook shot. The Nets will take it.

Durant’s defense will likely not return to its peak in Golden State, where he had the help of DPOY Draymond Green down low. But for the former MVP and scoring champion to give the Nets a bit of a boost on the less glamorous side of the ball, that will ultimately go a long way in delivering a championship to Brooklyn.