Kevin Durant provided the offensive heroic fireworks at the end of Game 4 Saturday night against the Lakers, drilling a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to put OKC ahead 98-95.
But it was Durant’s defense on Kobe Bryant in the final four minutes of the game that really swayed the momentum in the Thunder’s favor.
Kobe made a 17-foot fadeaway over James Harden from the right baseline to put the Lakers ahead 96-90 with 4:28 left in the game. Durant started covering Kobe after that shot.
“He said, ‘You get ‘em,’” Durant said of head coach Scott Brooks telling him to start covering Kobe. “I had to go guard him. I couldn’t tell Coach no. I didn’t want to back down from the challenge.”
Kobe missed his next five shots and only scored two more meaningful points the rest of the game.
Kobe had 34 points before Durant started guarding him and was for the second straight game killing the Thunder on offense in the post and getting to the free throw line.
Durant played Kobe some at the end of Game 3 and was effective then as well. Brooks probably saw this and knew it would be a good matchup for the Thunder at this point in the game.
“He wants to guard him,” Brooks said. “We like putting Thabo [Sefolosha], James [Harden] and Kevin on him. It was about three and [a] half minutes to go, and I made the decision. I thought that was the right thing to do at the time. Kobe was making shots like he always seems to do, but I thought Kevin did a good job of using his length and bothering him.”
Durant’s length is key to stopping Kobe. He is listed at 6-foot-9 but most people know he’s probably closer to 7-feet. With Kobe not having the quickness he used to, Durant doesn’t even lose anything guarding Kobe in that department either.
Kobe was having the most success getting physical with those defending him and fighting for position. He was getting a lot of foul calls on these plays in the last two games and it made defenders like Harden and Sefolosha have to be more tentative when contesting his shots.
Durant didn’t have to worry about playing physical. He could play off him and force him into tough, contested jumpers which he did.
“It was pretty much the same thing, except in the fourth quarter they crowd me and they shrink the floor,” Kobe said. “The driving lanes close off. [Serge] Ibaka’s more active coming off of rotations. But when you have the ball with the shot clock going down, it’s tough to get everybody in the right spots.”
Durant’s improved defense this season has been overlooked somewhat until last night. He has become more focused and engaged defensively and when he really locks in, he can be extremely effective on a number of elite players.
In the Thunder’s first meeting with the Miami Heat this season, Durant played and essentially shut down LeBron James in the same way that he did Kobe last night.
It is unlikely that Brooks would ever elect to have Durant cover Kobe for an entire game. But using him down the stretch on him to change things up and make Kobe alter his approach in crunch time is something we should expect again if another game comes down to the wire.