On top of his offensive arsenal, Kevin Durant is among the best defenders in the NBA.
OAKLAND — To hear Kevin Durant talk after his Golden State Warriors won the Christmas Day clash against the Cleveland Cavaliers was to wonder if he might have been bound for success no matter the endeavor.
The 29-year-old who has already earned two Olympic gold medals, one NBA championship, eight All-Star berths, a league MVP award and the 2017 Finals MVP honor was discussing all the ways he can still get better with a room full of reporters on hand. Forget that he finished with 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five blocks in the 99-92 win, or that he met yet another moment against LeBron James just like he did en route to the title last June. Durant, who demanded the James assignment late and had everything to do with forcing four fourth-quarter turnovers (seven in all), took on the kind of tone that almost always inspires evolution – for seven-foot basketball players and everymen alike.
“I’m still learning, still growing, figuring things out, and (James) is who he is at this point,” Durant, whose Warriors improved to 8-1 without Steph Curry as he recovers from an ankle sprain, explained when asked about James. “He’s experienced so much more than I have at this point. He’s looking at it from a different vantage point, and that’s the beauty of basketball. You get guys who have different paths, different journeys, and they meet up on the court and it’s magical. It’s fun. As competitors, that’s what we both want.
“I know exactly how I play, but I feel like I could get better at the small stuff. I was always taught to be curious, to keep growing, and not be satisfied where I am individually in my game. I continue to say that. I’m getting close to where I want to be, but I’m not there.”
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For the mainstream fans who often don’t tune in until Christmas Day games, it might be easy to see a player like Durant and dismiss the immense part that the work plays in this kind of Hall of Fame-bound career. But all that length, those arms, and even the athleticism would have been wasted if he didn’t always attack his craft with a certain type of mentality. And while the Durant highlight reels will almost always feature him soaring for a dunk or burying one of those three-pointers that no one in this league can seem to reach, it’s his quantum leap on the defensive end that has revealed the secret to his growth more than ever the past two seasons.
Just ask 37-year-old Warriors erudite David West, the forward who had never played with Durant until last season and wondered from the start whether he would still be willing to listen after all he’d accomplished.
“KD will listen to just about anybody if you’re telling him things that make him better,” West told USA TODAY Sports. “Once I realized he was open to information, I could try to encourage him and talk to him. You don’t know, especially a guy of his caliber, but he’s open to everything.”
Considering the subject here – someone in Durant who has been one of the best scorers in the history of the game for quite some time now – this kind of jump on the other end is stunning. Durant, who is averaging 26.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, is second in the NBA in blocks at 2.3 per game. Blocks aren’t the end-all-be-all of great defense, but they matter a great deal. Durant’s mark is not only better than his 1.6 per game level of last season but far better than the 1.3 mark from the 2012-13 campaign in Oklahoma City that was his previous career high during his first nine seasons.
He has earned a reputation as someone whose mentality is as crucial to his game as his size and ability.
“(Against the Cavs), he goes out of his way to make sure he’s guarding LeBron,” West continued. “He’s not trying to get away from that matchup. And obviously what he’s doing with the shotblocking is unreal because he still has the energy to get his on offense. He’s turned into an elite shotblocker.”
One who – and this is the part Warriors rivals don’t want to hear – might still be getting better.
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