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Zooming in on Durant’s usage

The usage of Kevin Durant has to be much better in flow, and nuanced in ways featured, than we’ve seen. This new rendition plus a training camp and full season provides a fresh opportunity at nailing the margins within this. Steps in doing so have taken place.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since acquiring Keven Durant, the Phoenix Suns have been tasked with getting the absolute most out of the polarizing presence that he is. They certainly haven’t done a bad job, per se, however, it’s without question that they’ve left more to be desired, as well.

An all-time scorer without a weakness in abilities to put the ball in the basket, where things become troublesome, is how the Suns, schematically, feature and counter when opponents look to take things away. The infinite abundance that Durant brings is never-ending, and that’s no secret.

The playoffs, however, showed what I felt was a far too vanilla approach to his involvement.

Whether that was lineup constructs and, primarily, the lack of small ball, or his stagnant touches — rather than using him as well in movement sets and/or off-screens or handoffs.

Making him more of a moving target, and using his mobility as a weapon for the typical pieces tasked with guarding him to keep up with, in traditional pick-and-roll initiation, as well as him screening then flowing into actions, plus his post/mid-post/elbow/nail touches — all in a blend, were where my mind was, and remains.

How he’s used should toggle through roles based on when he shares the floor with Booker, however, when not on with Booker, is when the entire “Durant” playbook should be opened. The opportunity presented to the Suns, via injury to Booker and Beal, should expedite and evolve their process in featuring Durant.

That should give much better context for Booker and Beal to see how to optimize themselves when Durant has the ball in his hands as well. Sans Booker and Beal this season, including opening night against the Warriors — when Durant spent nine minutes without either of his start teammates — here’s how those lineups have faired:

115 minutes, offensive rating - 119.75, defensive rating - 98.73, net rating - 21.02 — per PBP Stats.

Per Cleaning the Glass, said lineups have a non-garbage time net rating of +21.6 in 236 possessions, made of 12 separate lineup renditions (six of the relevant possession total variety, in sample size).

That non-garbage time rating ranks 98th percentile, meaning the Suns are one of the best teams in the NBA with Durant on the floor without his star mates — obviously what you want. Some of this speaks to the pieces around him, and some of this speaks to the improved process featuring him.

Let’s dive into some of the steps we’ve seen the Suns take and evolve in the sharpness of their process in deploying Durant on the chess board.

The movement and pace here, with Durant operating as Booker has Beal would (and Bridges did) all compromise the defensive responsibilities. Creates a two-way closeout as Horton-Tucker is in limbo, rotating to tag the roll, then tasked with a closeout as Durant times the pass well, off the extra attention he garnered.

Notice though, the movement makes it hard to double him, though he still garners extra attention, and he’s more than capable of reading the defense via that movement.

Keeping it blended with his touches in other contexts is ultra important.

Here, we see him flowing through the elbow, out.

Uses the cross-screen, and then flows into an empty corner pin for Gordon.

This is a unique wrinkle to all that they do from the elbows, as it features Durant as a screener. When Durant screens, it forces players to make decisions defensively. Notice John Collins, Durant's initial defender, here.

Durant screening causes some chaos

He doesn’t want to leave Durant on a switch because of the advantage that presents. The indecision and lack of communication leave Gordon wide open.

Even more, look at who’s playmaking in “Delay,” action. Nurkic playmaking removes the opposing center, and the 5-out spacing keeps Markkanen a beat behind in support.

Dominos falling with the space enabled below the free-throw line led to an easy two for Gordon.

Here we see Durant’s aforementioned deceptive movement patterns, with him again off movement (!!!).

That enables him to, after the Jazz switch up the line, ay in the reaction advantage.

Notice the subtle hesitation and look at the basket after the touch, and the urgency that pulls from Clarkson on the closeout — ultimately enabling Durant undeterred and uncontested access to the left elbow.

That’s a shot he religiously practices, and one Will Hardy doesn’t want to concede in their defensive scheme.

Compare and contrast here, how, in the play above, Clarkson’s switch up the line (or high switch) isn’t connected, and enables Durant to flow into the hand-off.

Now, notice how much more connected the switch up the line is here, to where Durant’s flow is stagnated some and there’s a hitch in the flow.

That’s much better here, but Durant is inevitable when you don’t take something away from him.

He’s patient after movement, letting the screen angle be adjusted by Eubanks, which enables downhill access to Olynyk.

More of Durant’s deceptive movement patterns in the mid-range allow him to get into the body, then fade, eliminating the contest.

Shots from here are as good as layups on efficiency, as astutely mentioned by David (@theivpointplay) — who you should be following if you aren’t already.

We now get to some mid-post touches, via BLOB (baseline out of bounds).

They empty the corner and give him a good angle from the catch, to assess the inevitable help to come.

The Jazz elected to send doubles from the passer and played with the cadence on which dribble they were sending another player at him.

It’s the first dribble here, and we see both the help and rotations the Jazz go with.

Suns play with solid decisiveness in the advantage, into a crafty Eubanks shot in the restricted area — a win.

Going to pause here, to flashback to their game from Thursday vs the Lakers, and see how they defended his touches for context.

These stills are a perfect example:

Even more, notice how active they were in the passing lanes in doing so:

Apply what was seen above from the Lakers, with “overload” help in addition to heavy “blocks and elbows” help positioning from others, to what we see on the post-ups versus the Jazz.

Valuable reps here.

We saw them identify Austin Reaves as the pigeon against the Lakers, and find ways to put him in consistent action—inducing switches — to latch him onto Durant.

Oftentimes that saw Durant screening and sealing.

We see it similarly spoiled here, in an emptied corner.

Taking mental note of what we saw in the last post-up rep above, vs the Jazz, we see that his first dribble initiates defensive domino’s falling — not the catch.

He’s patient, then makes the dribble and gets off it quicker than the rotation over, and Goodwin executes to the advantage.

Corner-filled spacing here, with Eubanks in the dunker’s spot and Little in the corner.

Now, Little can’t be deep in the corner because of the angle of Durant and the location of Eubanks, so he’s perfectly positioned.

That’s aided by Durant sequencing up the start of play, dictating.

Quick dribble then he’s off it. That’s aided by great connecting from Goodwin to the second side.

The advantage is Durant getting two to commit, but the pass from Goodwin to Watanabe is faster than the rotations of the Jazz, which is where you want to be.

This is precision, regardless of the result of the shot.

This one is fun because Durant, like a receiver, misleading the defense to gain leverage for a catch.

Durant sets a Pistol screen here, initiates a switch off Markkanen, then baits as if he’s exiting to the second side in relocation.

That gets Horton-Tucker to turn his head in anticipation of becoming a help defender, doubling to optimize the catch point for Durant at the block.

To finish, notice his footwork from the reverse pivot, to the inside-out catch.

Cam Johnson spoke to this on a recent episode of ‘The Old Man and the Three,’ with JJ Redick.

Think about this shot rep from Durant, as CamJo speaks on this science of shooting.

I hope that helps to better understand how special of a shot this is from Durant — over a picture-perfect contest, no-less.

Lastly, here, the post control on display is what needs to be seen more consistently from him.

I don’t like that he allowed Horton-Tucker to push him off his mark twice, before the catch, nonetheless, he regains positioning with post-control dribbles to navigate closer to the basket — where his size is even more of a weapon.

Gets all the way down to the block before the double truly comes, then beats it with a “Dream Shake,” discarding of the initial defender, and a fade, that beats even the long-armed contest from Kessler.

The Lakers and Jazz games provided a sustainable template — against a few different looks — that shows they’re parsing through this process with intent.

The challenge resides in continuing to rep out the pace, flow, and reads against multiple defensive schemes, as well as blending more inverting of the offense into the process — with Booker and Beal in rotation.

Defensive decision-making becomes that much more consequential if you have, say, those two, and Gordon on the floor in space.

Any semblance of a 1v1 in these scenarios for Durant is a positive, regardless of whether it’s a make or a miss, and it’s something that can be optimized even more in small ball renditions.

Optionality is endless in this rendition, and better blending the optimization of Durant’s touches and usage — below the free throw line and with movement — is needed to fully optimize this group’s offensive potential, and Durant himself.

Film Session

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