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The Celtics Made Sure Kevin Durant Had The Playoffs From Hell

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Kevin Durant has had some tough games and stretches over the course of his long career. Still, prior to the series he just wrapped up against the Boston Celtics, I think you could count the number of games where he’s faced such intense wire-to-wire individual and team defense on two hands. The NBA’s tracking stats say Durant was tightly guarded on more than 60 percent of his shots in this series, but if anything that feels low. The cleanest, most comfortable shot I can remember Durant taking and making across four games was the goofy running three-pointer he threw in ahead of the final buzzer Monday night, after the game and series were already effectively over.

The 2022 Celtics are an extraordinarily gifted defensive team, particularly when it comes to matching up with wing scorers. The Nets, lacking any sort of cohesive offensive structure, had to resort to a lot of very basic matchup hunting, and the Celtics, especially with a rotation trimmed to playoff depth, almost never had a vulnerable defender to offer up. The few times per game that they did, they immediately sent as many as two help defenders sprinting toward the ball. Durant’s margin for error, when trying desperately to wedge his way into comfortable shooting space, was basically nonexistent. Even watching him try was exhausting. This sequence from Game 2 shows some hellish team defense from the Celtics, but I would also like to point out that Kevin Durant touches the ball for a total of five seconds and is defended in that time by five Celtics:

After Game 1—Durant’s worst and least efficient playoff game since a breathtakingly bad 7-for-33 showing against Dallas in 2016, according to Basketball Reference’s Game Score—Grant Williams said Boston’s plan in the series was to make everything difficult for Durant, up to an including “when he’s going to get a cup of water on the sideline.” Exaggeration? Possibly, but not by much: In the fourth quarter of Game 4, with the Celtics up eight and the game getting into crunch time, Williams went well out of his way to contest a practice jumper, taken during a timeout. Not the old Kevin Garnett move of swatting the ball away from the rim, either. Williams, who was incredible in isolation defense against Durant all series long, was up in Durant’s space, throwing a sweaty armpit into his face and a hand up to disrupt his shooting motion. This is harassment!

Durant was 19-for-52 through the first three games of this series, with a whopping 17 turnovers, pretty easily his worst stretch of three consecutive playoff games since 2010, during his first career playoff appearance. He fared better in Game 4, but not enough to sway the tide, not even after Jayson Tatum picked up a dubious sixth foul with 2:49 left on the clock and the Nets within six points. Following a bad foul by Marcus Smart inside the final 30 seconds, a visibly exhausted Durant stepped to the line with a chance to pull the Nets to within a point. Durant is a career 88 percent free-throw shooter, and had made all nine of his freebies to that point in the game. Surely this was one area where the frustrations of the series would melt away and he could breath clear air and take his time and simply throw in a couple of shots, as he has done more than 7,500 times in his NBA career.

Durant is probably achy as hell this morning. He played all but 81 seconds of Monday night’s Game 4 loss; over the grueling four-game series, Durant was on the floor for 174 of 192 possible minutes, against what he described as “the best defense in the league,” in his age-33 season, and after finishing fifth in the regular season in minutes per game. Today he almost certainly lacks the energy for much more than licking his wounds and firing off petty posts about Charles Barkley’s unfulfilling Houston years.

After the game, Durant spoke about the shock he and his teammates will experience “not being able to get up and go to the gym every day,” now that their season has ended so abruptly. If I were Kevin Durant I would drag my sore joints out of bed, lace up my sneakers, and put off that shock for at least one more day. The thing to do today is to go to the gym and get off a few clean rhythm jumpers, just so that he can be reminded what it is like to shoot a basketball without several long-limbed Celtics defending him from the interior space of his own shirt.

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