OAKLAND — During Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr pulled his star scorer Kevin Durant aside. Durant had responded to the iso-heavy Rockets with a heavy dose of iso plays of his own, and it wasn’t working.
During the 98-94 Houston win, in which Durant had 29 points and no assists, Kerr told Durant that he needed to start trusting his teammates early in plays by using a story about his former teammate, Michael Jordan.
As Kerr was finishing the story about Phil Jackson telling Jordan to trust his open teammates early in plays, Durant stared blankly in the opposite direction, then walked away. Social media skewered Durant for not listening to Kerr, and was ready to roast him again after an 8-for-22 shooting night against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals — the third time in four games he shot 36.4 percent or less from the field.
Nobody was more disappointed in Durant than himself, a career 49-percent shooter.
“I didn’t take smart shots,” Durant said. “I took risky looks. I took some shots that I know I can hit, but I’d rather get better shots than that.”
Outside of a 4-for-6 fourth quarter in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, Durant has shot 1-for-13 in the fourth quarter since May 22. He’s shot 39.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three during that span.
Durant’s isolation plays against the Rockets ran counter to the pass-heavy offense that’s gotten the Warriors to their fourth straight Finals. While he totaled 37 isolation possessions in 15 postseason games in 2017, he already has 120 this postseason in 17 games. That’s third-most in the league behind James Harden and LeBron James.
“We’re all victims of our expectations that we’ve set,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said of Durant. “I mean, the fact that they’re saying K.D. had a bad game is kind of funny, just with what you expect from him every single night.”
Durant is one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. In his 11 NBA regular seasons, Durant has only once shot less than 46.2 percent from the field, 35 percent from three and 85.4 percent from the free throw line — his rookie year with Seattle.
Among 16 multi-time NBA scoring champions, Durant’s true shooting percentage of 61.09 — which takes into account field goals, three-point field goals and free throws — ranks first, ahead of the likes of Kobe Bryant (54.96), George Gervin (56.38), Bob McAdoo (55.09) and yes, Michael Jordan (56.86).
When Kerr told Durant during that Game 5 chat that even Jordan needed to be told to pass more, he took it to heart.
“I really, really appreciated that moment,” Durant said. “I needed it, as well. It’s good to get a reminder from guys that are successful in the league, whether it’s now or back in the past, especially to give you some advice here and there when you need it.”
Since that conversation, he’s averaged five assists per game.
“That’s on me to kind of know the flow of the game,” Durant said. “I think I’ve done a solid job of that throughout this season and throughout the playoffs. I had some games where I struggled a bit, and that’s just a part of it. But just kind of feeling the game, how each game might be different, and I think that goes into focus. So if I come into the game knowing and being prepared for anything, then I can conquer it. But that goes back to just being locked in to start.”
Kerr, when asked about James’s 51-point performance in the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to his Warriors, said that, with a transcendent talent like that on one’s team, it’s hard to lack confidence, urging caution in Game 2 against a motivated James and his teammates. Once again, he invoked Jordan.
“If we lost a game, you go back to the hotel, you’re upset and then you go, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got Michael,'” said Kerr. ” … Kevin is one of those guys.”
Durant is the third player in NBA history to score 25 or more points in each of his first 11 Finals games. He ranks ahead of Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
Even on a bad shooting night, as the primary defender guarding James during his onslaught, Durant still managed 26 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three blocks, one steal and just one turnover.
“The ultimate confidence guys, when you know he’s on your side — you think back to Game 7 against Houston,” Kerr said. “All the shots he hit down the stretch. There’s not many people on Earth who can do what he can do under pressure in the playoffs. He’s an unbelievable talent and safety valve anytime we need him to get a bucket.”
Durant took about 40 shots during the half-hour of practice media members were allowed to view on Saturday at Oracle Arena. He missed five. Four came from outside the three-point line. After he missed one on the right side, he hit five from the same spot. After he missed a three from the matching spot on the left side of the court, he took six more, and hit five.
The Cavaliers allowed 1.12 points per possession during the regular season. It’s the worst such figure in league history by a team playing in the Finals. Durant and the Warriors will take aim at that defense tonight at 5 p.m.
“He’s focused,” Kerr said. “He knows he didn’t play very well in Game 1. He’s excited for Game 2.”