Ten years ago, Kevin Durant was a 215-pound teenager who couldn’t complete a single bench press at the NBA combine. Some pundits were worried he was too scrawny to handle the rigors of the pros, too lean to play forward. As a rookie with the Sonics, Durant played shooting guard. Sunday night, during Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Durant was the best center in basketball.
After Draymond Green fell into foul trouble during the third quarter, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr put Durant at the 5 — a position he had played for only eight minutes this season, entering the night, per NBA Wowy. Over a five-minute stint, the Warriors extended their lead to 14, and Durant thrived; the stretch was a microcosm of Durant’s technicolor performance that left him two steals short of a 5x5, with 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and five blocks. "I don’t think there’s many teams in the league who their backup is better than their starter," Green said of KD after the game. "He’s been doing it all playoff long, but in these Finals he’s really picked it up and it’s been huge for us."
Durant has never been named to an All-Defensive team over his 10 years in the league. Watching Game 2, you’d think he’d won Defensive Player of the Year in every one of them. "I learned so much from [Draymond] throughout the season," Durant said postgame. "I’m just trying to play hard, man. I keep saying that. Just play hard every possession."
Durant locked down Kyrie Irving on the perimeter and blocked shots at the rim. Here’s what channeling Draymond looked like: KD flying in from the weak side, then snatching the ball and dribbling into a step-back 3:
"His defense was amazing and we needed it, especially with Draymond out," said Kerr, after his first game on the bench since April. "I thought that Kev’s defense was unreal, and it was probably the key to the whole game." Imagine telling a skeptical scout 10 years ago that Durant would one day body-up one of the league’s premier post players and use his 7-foot-5 wingspan to block the shot. Here’s Durant doing that plus more:
The game done changed. Durant is the most skilled 7-footer in the history of basketball, and now he’s playing in an era where smaller, leaner players can play traditionally bigger positions. That’s because there are no positions anymore — only roles and responsibilities. Durant has always been able to rebound and block shots. As a freshman at Texas, he averaged 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. What Durant did on Sunday was a glimpse at what the league has become and what it’s still evolving into — harder, better, faster, slimmer.
The Warriors set the coordinates for the NBA’s future, as Jonathan Tjarks wrote one year ago. Teams of the future will need to adapt their rosters with Golden State in mind. While no team can be the Warriors, they can attempt to be like them by seeking versatile players who can drain 3s. Asking a team to defeat the Warriors over the next five or so years is like asking someone to build a rocket to the moon using scrap metal and battery fluid.
Even the Cavaliers, with the best player in the world, looked utterly defeated. For all the time we spend analyzing the Finals — whether the Cavaliers need to slow it down offensively or keep pushing it in transition, or whether their offense or defense is the bigger problem — simplicity is the best answer. It’s obvious the difference in this series is the personnel. The Warriors have a significantly better roster and a more versatile, modernized system. They also have Durant.
You can feel however you want about Durant’s decision to join a 73-win team. He very well might win four consecutive championships and it might mean nothing to you. But there’s no denying the pure splendor of watching a top-50 all-time player flourish in a system that heightens his talents, especially after eight years of Oklahoma City caveman ball.
Durant said he made the "100 percent correct decision" joining the Warriors; it’s hard to argue with that when he’s two games away from the pinnacle. Shut your eyes and you can see him hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in one hand while cradling the Finals MVP trophy in the other. LeBron is still the best player on the planet, but Durant is the best player on the best team in a league where a tall, lanky shooting guard can dominate at center in the NBA Finals. The league is morphing, and Durant is reaching his apex.