Kevin Durant argues with an official during Monday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Jacob C. Palmer/S.F. Examiner)

KDefense: Durant’s growth as shotblocker empowers Golden State

OAKLAND — The way Kevin Durant sees it, LeBron James is always going to be LeBron James. He’s maxed out as a player. And that isn’t a criticism, because his max makes him one of the greatest players of all time.

But that’s not how Durant sees himself, he never wants to stop learning and growing as a player.

That philosophy is realized by his improvement as a defender in general and a shot blocker in particular.

When Durant entered the league as a skinny 19-year old, he was often overpowered  on that side of the floor. He was pushed around and many around the NBA wondered if he’d end up being just a scorer, a guy who gets you points but gives up his share as well.

Now in his 11th season, he’s blossomed into one of the best defenders in the league. He’s leading the league for blocks and he isn’t getting bullied any more. Quite the contrary: He actually wants the challenge of guarding James, a one-of-a-kind physical force.

“He asks for the assignment,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr revealed after the 99-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It just makes sense.”

Durant downplayed the gesture, saying he just wanted to guard whoever was playing his position on the other team.

But it really doesn’t matter what motivated him, because he was spectacular on Christmas, either way.

Durant finished with five blocked shots (to go along with 25 points and seven rebounds) and he extended his streak of games with at least a pair of blocks to nine games, a career high.

And with less than 30 seconds on the clock and the Warriors clinging to a three-point lead, Durant swatted James at the rim. The play (naturally) set Twitter on fire as fans argued over whether it was a foul. It might have been, but it wasn’t called. And so it counts as a block.

“It felt clean,” Durant said. “… [People on Twitter] know if they ain’t call it, it’s not a foul. I’m sure if they get that call next week in 24 Hour Fitness, they’d be pissed it was called a foul.

“Keep that shit on Twitter.”

Pointless argument aside, the play illustrated the growth of Durant as a player. Not only has he progressed as a scorer and crunchtime performer, he’s a fearless rim protector. That would’ve been unheard of a decade ago when he was considered a lanky two-guard.

Durant was a major reason the Cavs managed just 25 percent shooting inside the arc as he’s taken the lead from Draymond Green of being an intimidating force despite not being the typical dimensions of a center.

“It helps when you have guys like KD and Draymond back there to clean up any missed assignments,” Klay Thompson said. “… They play with such great toughness. They really put us over the top.”

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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