Monday, May 12, 2014

Is Chris Paul LA's Secret Weapon For Stopping Kevin Durant?

Midway through the 3rd quarter of Game 4, in consecutive trips up the floor, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant tried to run simple pick and rolls. They were pleased to switch Durant's defender from Matt Barnes to Chris Paul both times. On the first play, Paul picked Durant's pocket clean, and quickly converted the steal to an assist. On the second, KD tried to back down Paul from the 3-point line and ended up falling over in an awkward sequence that led to the Clippers gaining possession on a jump ball. 

Fast forward to the 4th quarter. Down by 15 points with 11:07 left in the game, Paul, who played 45 of 48 minutes Sunday, checked back in and matched up on the 6'11" MVP. The next time Durant touched the ball, CP3 picked him clean again, raced down the court for an uncontested layup, and began erasing the 15-point deficit en route to winning the pivotal home game and tying the series at 2-2. 

Durant, who also played 45 minutes,  struggled down the stretch, unable to find a rhythm or get the ball in his desired spots. Paul contested Durant before, after, and during the catch, and never gave him an inch of breathing room. When Durant got deep post position, Paul fronted him effectively. When KD did receive a pass cleanly, the Clippers would immediately send a double team, which caused a number of Durant's 8 turnovers. 

When asked after the game if it was brilliant coaching, Doc Rivers responded, "I wouldn't call it brilliant coaching. I would call it desperate coaching." Rivers acknowledged that he and his assistant coaches talked about how well Tony Allen guarded Durant in Round 1, and that it favored the Clippers to force Durant into post-up situations against smaller players. 

The scouting report rang true. Kevin Durant, despite all of his accomplishments and abilities, is still developing the skills of an NBA forward. In Scott Brooks isolation offense, Durant plays most like a shooting guard, relying on his face-up game and long range shooting prowess. The problem is that he rarely runs off of screens like a shooting guard would, and has trouble, like many guards do, passing and dribbling effectively when being matched up against the league's top perimeter defenders. A player with a more polished post game and greater strength could have made the Clippers pay for putting their point guard on the scoring giant that is The Slim Reaper, but at this point in his career, he hasn't consistently shown the tools necessary to make that happen. 

To be fair, Durant had 40 points in the game. He made 15 of 18 free throws, and knocked down a tough contested jumper in the lane with Paul draped all over him. However, the simple fact that Durant had to work so hard to get even a difficult shot in the lane against a player 12 INCHES SHORTER THAN HIM is alarming. He won't develop a more refined back-to-the-basket game overnight, but catching the ball deeper in the post and being more patient against double teams could mitigate the effectiveness Paul's tenacious D has shown on the Durantula 

Basketball is a complex game and there are dozens of factors that led to the Clippers improbable comeback in Game 4. Darren Collison was outstanding, knifing his way into the lane for key buckets late, and proving that he deserves another chance at a starting role in the NBA. The Paul to Blake bounce passes on the pick and roll were executed with perfection and regularity, coming at crucial times for LA. In the Thunder's case, poor situational coaching, the inability to create uncontested shots, and untimely misses by Russell Westbrook were all contributing factors in the final minutes. These two teams have traded punches, and are left with a best of 3 series to decide who will advance. It will be interesting to see if Chris Paul's defense on Kevin Durant can make the difference for the Clippers. 

-John Fontanelli (@JohnAnthony37)

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