CHICAGO – Kevin Durant: small forward, All-Star forward, point forward … power forward.
It’s not exactly new but then, it hasn’t been an everyday thing either for the Oklahoma City Thunder and their best player. Durant played some shifts at the power forward spot last spring in the playoffs, but he’s there now more than ever, applying new math in this “Frontcourt” era of NBA “threes,” “fours” and “fives.”
What LeBron James embraced last season – long minutes and a legit label as a power forward for the Miami Heat – Durant is doing too, in a more sinewy, silky way. Down the stretch in OKC’s 97-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls at United Center, Thunder coach Scott Brooks went with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant and Serge Ibaka.
Luol Deng guarded Durant – or tried to late, with the Thunder forward scoring 10 points of his 24 points in the final 6:58 – but at the other end, Durant matched up with Chicago backup big Taj Gibson.
“It’s the first time I used it as much as I did, with Kevin at the ‘four,’ ” Brooks said. “They were playing small and their bigs can do a great job of handling the ball and making plays. They’re almost like ‘point bigs.’
“It’s always an option. I still love having Serge and [Kendrick Perkins] in there because they’re two monsters who just protect the paint, block shots and are always thinking defense.”
It all hinges on Durant’s ability to cope with some extra banging, both on the boards and out on the floor giving up his body in screens for Westbrook and others. He got called for his only foul Thursday because he moved his hip into a Bulls defender, but he also helped spring Westbrook (16 points, 12 assists), Ibaka (21 points) and Martin (15).
“I like it. Whatever coach needs me to do, man, I’m willing to sacrifice,” Durant said afterward. “Me being at the ‘four,’ that means going out there and being a rebounder and screener, spacer, and open things up for my teammates.”
Said Brooks: “I thought Kevin did a great job of setting screens. That’s something we’ve talked about with him – he has to be a much better screen setter. Sometimes he’s going to have to just set the screen, knowing that he’s not going to get the shot. It’s not going to leave him open.”
But it’s also not a full-time gig. Durant’s all-around improvement continued through the summer with Team USA and he still is most happy, and effective, as a point forward. But the versatility that makes him so dangerous on the wing suits him in or near the paint too. Whatever makes life tougher for the opposition, that’s where Durant seems content.
“Let’s face it, you could throw him at the ‘two’ and he’s going to be one of the best in the league,” Brooks said. ” ‘Three.’ ‘Four.’ Not so much at the ‘five’ but … At the ‘four,’ the only concern is that the guys that he has to guard are going to be much bigger and stronger, and they’re going to take him inside. Our team defense is pretty solid, but it is a tough matchup for a lot of teams. It is something that we use … at some moment in the game, we throw it out there. Kevin likes it.”
Durant has, in fact, become one of the Thunder’s card-carrying bigs. “He’s playing it a lot,” Thunder big man Nick Collison said. “He played it last year in the playoffs. I mean, he’s 7-feet tall. Very athletic, one of our best rebounders.”
The role is not without its challenges for him, Collison said. “As a big, a lot of the coverages he sees are different. In the pick-and-roll, he’s got to communicate, talk more. But most of the time when he does it, it makes the other team make a substitution. They just can’t guard him with a regular ‘four’ man.”
Durant, through five games, is averaging a career-best 10.6 rebounds; previously, his high was last season’s 8.0. His scoring is down, 21.4 on about 15 shots a night compared to the 26.2 and 18.3 he averaged in 2011-12.
Brooks isn’t about to play away from Durant’s strengths as a shooter and scorer. But he and the Thunder see in Durant, at that power spot, a lot of what James gives Miami, only in less rippled form.
“It’s more about your skill set,” Collison said. “What are you able to do? If guys like that can rebound well enough to have it not be a disadvantage, that means it’s all positive. There aren’t a lot of guys like that, but guys like LeBron and Kevin, it’s a good weapon to have.”
Especially when the “guys like…” list is such a short one.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980.