- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now, that strange time of year for criticizing players whose existence makes you feel lucky to be alive. Kevin Durant is certainly one of those guys who awes and inspires with his standard level of play. He’s as tall as a center, but moves like a guard. Actually, he might even move in a wholly different manner from anyone else. He floats out there on offense, in the best of senses. There’s an effortlessness to his shot and his handle that doesn’t seem possible for a man that size. Criticizing him really feels like kicking a gift horse in the mouth.
He has his flaws, though, flaws that helped swing the West finals in San Antonio’s favor. This isn’t to say such flaws are immutable, that this will be his curse for as long as he plays. This isn’t to say he’s “Mr. Unreliable.” One thing that’s been easy to rely on over the years is Durant’s ability to improve himself. It’s just that, yes, he was disappointing in these playoffs, and yes, his play revealed why, even though he deservedly won the MVP award from his regular-season exploits, he’s not yet better than LeBron James.
The difference between LeBron and Durant is the former really doesn’t have a weakness. Even if James slipped as a defensive force this season, at least some of that seemed to be a matter of effort, given his track record as a good defender. Defensively, Durant’s just bad, relative to his size and lengthy frame. A lot of that coordination and mobility we see on offense leaves him on the defensive end. He can be a wobbly defender, unsure of how much space to cede, unable to turn his hips when driven past.
To be fair, Durant does well defensively in the right matchup (He was good against Kawhi Leonard in this series, for example). The problems happen when he has to guard someone outside his comfort zone, like he frequently had to when OKC decided put Durant on Danny Green after Green’s Game 1 3-point outburst. In this matchup, Durant struggled to get around screens and fell asleep off the ball. Durant’s defense was a party to half of Green’s threes after Game 1. He also got blasted in the post by Boris Diaw in Game 2, causing the Thunder to largely abandon that strategy the rest of the way.
Offensively, Durant isn’t without flaws either. On balance, Durant was a better offensive player this season than LeBron was, but LeBron doesn’t feature weaknesses that can be exploited in playoff game-planning. If you take something away from James, he can do something else. Durant’s not quite there.
In this series Durant couldn’t wholly exploit his size advantage over Green when San Antonio put Leonard on Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was fine going against a larger player, flying past Leonard whenever the small forward so much as flinched. Durant struggled to get open against a quick defender, and struggled to dribble when played tight.
Right now he lacks the strength to assure himself post position. His handle is impressive for his size, but it’s not totally trustworthy in the way, say, LeBron’s is. Durant’s still reliant on others, he’s not great at getting open, and, though his passing has improved markedly over the years, he had a tendency towards tunnel vision in these playoffs.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a guy to LeBron James, and the Thunder are the envy of the league for having a younger player who’s at least comparable. Durant might very well be at the point LeBron was after the 2011 Finals. He’s a brilliant player, blessed with gifts you rarely see in a lifetime. He just hasn’t yet honed those gifts to the point of having a solid counter to whatever defense comes his way. I, for one, will enjoy the process of seeing him get there.