Charley Rosen's Close Look: Kevin Durant vs. Shane Battier
In their 117-105 loss in Oklahoma City, and with Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks still out of commission, it was hardly a surprise that the Rockets were out-manned and outplayed. However, there was one man-to-man competition that promised to be an equitable one: Kevin Durant, who is literally an irresistible offensive force, versus Shane Battier, one of the NBA's most accomplished defensive stoppers.
When the Thunder succumbed to the Lakers in last season's playoffs, Ron Artest neutralized Durant by relentlessly bullying him. At 6-8, 220, Battier is an inch taller and 30 pounds lighter than Ron-Ron, so simply Bogarting KD is not in his game plan. Instead, here's how Battier tried to control Durant:
By closely tailgating him over the top of every offered screen. This meant keeping constant contact with Durant, then trying to jump into his path when he attempted to turn the corner and head for the rim. For the most part, Durant shot only 1 for 3 (with an assist and a missed layup) in this scenario, making it an unqualified success for Battier. And the only bucket Durant did convert was due to Luis Scola's being a no-show on the other side of the screen.
Durant did lose Battier after receiving a handoff, after which he buried an open 20-footer. He also burned Battier with another uncontested springer after he cut past a screen, then retraced his steps to use the same screen again. In the low-post, Durant hit a fadeaway jay over Battier. And he was 2-for-5 when isolating Battier, with both of his makes accomplished under heavy pressure. Included here was a third quarter iso situation, when Battier forced Durant to drive baseline-right into the bosom of Houston's help defense -- and the resulting shot was blocked.
On the run, Durant bested Battier twice in two opportunities, with one of his layups likewise made with the latter's hands seriously challenging the former's shot.
Overall, Durant scored 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting from the field. But in mano-a-mano battles with Battier, KD tallied sixteen points on 5-for-11 shooting. Which means that against the only other defender he faced (i.e., Chase Budinger), Durant's 7-for-7 shooting produced another 16 points.
All in all, it was a more than adequate job performed by Battier. Besides hounding Durant over the top of screens, whenever Durant turned-and-faced with the ball in his hand, Battier assumed a wide defensive stance and positioned himself about a half-step away. Most importantly, Battier never was convinced by any of Durant's fakes. One result was that Battier limited Durant to only a single drive to the rim in all of the Thunder's halfcourt sets. Moreover, while Durant is currently averaging nearly nine free throws per game, he only shot two from the stripe against Battier.
A yeoman's job accomplished by Battier, but ultimately a fruitless one.
At the other end of the court, Durant was barely challenged. Battier functioned primarily as a ball-reverser and only unleashed unattended shots -- shooting 2-for-7 with five assists, three steals and five points. One of Battier's scores occurred when Kevin Martin tossed up a long trey and Durant immediately broke downcourt, leaving Battier free to grab the rebound and put-back an uncontested layup. Indeed, Durant never bothered to box out on any of Houston's possessions.
Budinger was more active on offense yet only managed to register six points under Durant's watch. That adds up to a 32-11 advantage for Durant over his two erstwhile opposite numbers.
Overall, Oklahoma City was too quick and had too many offensive options, including Russell Westbrook (17 points), Jeff Green (21), James Harden (16) and Thabo Sefolosha (15). Because Houston's interior defense was only a sometimes thing, it was no wonder that the Thunder shot 57.7 percent (to Houston's 46.3 percent), nor that the home team enjoyed a substantial 41-28 margin in the battle of the boards.
Of course the team in the red uniforms that succumbed so easily to the Thunder was nothing like the team that was supposed to be among the NBA's elite. The double loss of Yao and Brooks is devastating, and here's precisely why:
Brooks' incredible quickness makes him a one-man fast break. The idea was for him to push every possession at warp speed and either get to the hoop himself, or kick out assist passes to Martin, Courtney Lee or Battier for wide-open perimeter shots. Should no acceptable shots be created either on the run or in early offense, then Yao would lumber into the low-post and become the focal point of the offense.
This dualistic fast-and-slow attack is extremely difficult to prepare and execute a counteractive defense against.
In fact, the Rockets anticipated operating on the same principles as the Showtime Lakers of Kareem and Magic -- although not nearly as brilliantly effective.
The fact that the current Rockets never stopped hustling all game long, and have achieved a 10-15 record, is remarkable.
Perhaps the Battier-Durant matchup could turn out to be the most significant factor in any subsequent games between these two ball clubs, if/when Yao and Brooks are ever back in the lineup.