It’s looking desolate in the Nets World right now. A once-abundant superplanet is on its last legs, imploding from within—its core collapsing—after the war against its green and black-clad foe. Its grassy fields have all but died out after a cold hard winter—the bright yellow, blue, and red summer flowers that once meshed together like a Basquiat painting have wilted away into a sea of brown. The oceans, flushed with a mixture of colorful tie-dye blues, have been polluted so incessantly that those radiant colors have washed away into the depths of the ocean floor. Even the cities themselves—emboldened by its brazen street art, the words “Bed-Stuy” and “BKLYN” sprayed permanently on the walls of city buildings—have begun to crumble into dust.
What’s been at the epicenter of this epic collapse?
The proud leader of the Nets World, its creator just one year ago, has proven to be mortal. His sense of invincibility that once protected his nation’s people has been tested, attacked, and thus far, defeated.
It’s true. Kevin Durant has not had a good showing against the Boston Celtics, his Nets reeling while down 2-0 in the first-round series. His 25 points on 31.7 percent shooting and 28.6 percent from three, along with just 4 assists and 6 turnovers per game would be the worst of his 14-year career. His lethal pull-up shooting and creativity as a scorer has been mucked up by an incredibly aggressive Celtics defense that has consistently appeared as if it’s thinking two steps ahead. Durant’s being swarmed on every offensive possession, his airspace completely eradicated by multiple long and athletic Celtic bodies.
“They’re playing two or three guys on me sometimes when I’m off the ball, mucking up actions when I run off stuff,” said Durant. “I see [Al] Horford leaving his man and coming over to hit me sometimes. There are two or three guys hitting me wherever I go. That’s just the nature of the beast in the playoffs.”
Game 2 was emblematic of Durant’s playoff struggles, a 4-for-17 stinker in which Brooklyn’s floor leader mustered up just 5 assists to his 6 turnovers and was a team-worst -10 in his 42 minutes played. For a player that prides himself on his all-around game, there wasn’t one category that KD made an imprint on—scoring, passing, ball-handling, defense, you name it.
The Celtics regularly sent two to the ball when Brooklyn went to pick-and-roll sets involving Durant and one of Brooklyn’s roll men, yet KD just couldn’t make the defense pay with even a semblance of consistency. In the first clip from the video below, Durant has a window for a bounce pass to Andre Drummond tearing down the middle of the floor; he instead settles for a weak lob pass that is easily batted away by Al Horford (who has been just tremendous in this series, by the way).
In clip number two from the video above, the Nets clear out a side for Bruce Brown and Durant to run the two-man game (meaning that there are no other offensive players sharing that side of the floor), and Durant misses what could’ve been a wrap-around pass to Bruce diving to the rim. It’s not an easy look, to be clear, but it could certainly be argued that this passing window is at least somewhat attainable for a player of KD’s skill.
“Since 2012, I’ve been (averaging) around five assists a night,” Durant told reporters on April 10. “So it’s been 10 years of this, I feel I’ve been an elite passer since then, 2013.”
It hasn’t appeared that way through two games. With the Celts sending two, sometimes three defenders Durant’s way, one would assume that the 33-year-old would tap into those elite playmaking skills to exploit those 4-on-3 or 4-on-2 advantages. It’s been quite the opposite; KD has instead elected to dig deeper into his ISO bag—almost stubbornly—even if this meant flat-out missing open teammates.
Below, Durant completely whiffs on dishing to Seth Curry twice in the left corner, an area from where he shot 50 percent in the regular season, all in a two-minute span. In the first clip, Jaylen Brown overhelps from the strong side of the floor after the Nets run pick-and-roll, but KD passes up the easy 10-foot dish to the wide-open Seth. In the second clip, Durant once again fails to acknowledge Curry relocating to the left corner while his defender, Grant Williams, camps out in the paint. KD instead overdribbles right into the help of Jayson Tatum.
Here are a pair of screenshots to illustrate just egregious these errors were.
Brooklyn ranks 11th in halfcourt offense efficiency of the 20 playoff and play-in teams, which seems inconceivable given the plethora of shot-creating talent on the roster. But as we’ve learned, Durant cannot do it all alone, and his resistance to involving his teammates has been a major root of Brooklyn’s halfcourt problems.
“I don’t know a lot of seven-footers that are doing what he’s doing with the ball in his hands as a playmaker as often as he is,” said Kyrie Irving after Brooklyn’s play-in victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “When he’s passing the ball like that, it just brings our level up, and when you have a guy that’s willing to sacrifice himself to get other guys shots and do it consistently, it just gives everybody confidence around him.”
Durant’s passing wasn’t the only thing the Celtics targeted defensively; his handle has also been a frequent source of giveaways in the face of swarming defense. Jayson Tatum’s isolation deterrence against Durant has been relentless, and he’s shown excellent precision in denying KD’s ability to get into his crossover bag and pull up from the elbows. Moreover, the Celtics as a team have been preying on Durant’s spin-move—a favorite of his when getting into his Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway. Jaylen Brown, in particular, has been exceptionally sneaky at digging down on Durant’s spin move or just flat-out sneak-attacking him from behind, and his seven steals in two games by far leads his squad.
It’d be one thing if Durant was struggling to find himself offensively but contributing on the other end as a team leader on defense... but that just hasn’t been the case. Normally an excellent secondary shot-blocker, Durant has appeared completely lost in his help rotations. Below, KD overhelps on this Jayson Tatum drive even when his teammates, Andre Drummond and Bruce Brown, have the Celtic star bottled up, and Brooklyn is rewarded with an Al Horford corner three.
In the second clip from the video above, Brooklyn rotates fairly well... that is until Durant forgets his role as the final link in the defensive chain. Andre Drummond helps over as the low-man when Jayson Tatum breaks free after slipping his screen. Goran Dragic sinks down to the corner to take away the shorter-distanced three for Al Horford. And Durant, well, ball-watches instead of sliding over to Dragic’s man, Jaylen Brown, who hits the back-breaking three to bring the score within two. Brutal.
Even Durant’s positioning as a team defender has been off. Here, he’s shifted in too far at the nail, giving Marcus Smart the easy outlet to Al Horford for three. Durant’s ridiculous length and athleticism can be one hell of a crutch—his closeouts were the stuff of magic during the regular season—but this is just too much space against a stretch big with a high release point.
Notice the inclusion of “regular season” when discussing his closeouts—that’s intentional. Durant’s been woefully sloppy when running shooters off the line in the postseason thus far. Below, after helping as the low man against a driving Marcus Smart, Durant exhibits very little body control when recovering out to Al Horford in the corner and nearly goes for a quick crowd-surf session in the first row. That 7’5” wingspan should be weaponized! Yet because Durant fails to stutter his footwork and maintain his balance, Horford takes one dribble for the 15-foot pull-up.
“I feel like I’ve always been a good defender. Early on in my career I was asked to score for my teams, and we had defenders that were asked to guard the best wing player,” said Durant last season. “I’ve just been trying to learn from the defenders on my team and my coaches and over time, I think I just gradually got better at it. I’m still looking to improve in all different areas of defense, especially mentally. But I felt like I’ve always been a … I haven’t been a liability. That’s probably the main thing when you’re out there. You don’t want to be a liability, so my teammates trust me.”
Here’s maybe Durant’s most confounding possession of all. Seriously, can someone explain what he’s doing here? To start, Boston uses Marcus Smart as the drag screener in transition to serve up Jayson Tatum with the mismatch against Patty Mills after Brooklyn switches assignments. Recognizing this, Durant elects to abandon his man, Grant Williams, to provide Mills with some 7-foot assistance. But here’s the issue: Nic Claxton is already pre-rotated over as the low man to shadow Tatum—which, by the way, is the correct rotation on Nic’s part. Suddenly left alone to his own devices, Grant Williams then rises up to the top of the key for a completely uncontested three as Durant looks on with confusion.
While Brooklyn’s goose may already be cooked, Kevin Durant, the beating heart of this Nets franchise, represents the team’s best and only chance at evening things up versus the Celtics. Durant has long prided himself on his all-around game, labeling himself as more than a scorer.
It’s time for him to show it.