Kevin Durant has the utmost confidence in himself and his unique talent. Whether it’s during back-and-forths with the media or in response to team drama, he’s constantly repeating his mantra, “I just wanna hoop.”
“I just wanna hoop” is shorthand for Durant’s preferred offense. During the first two games of the series, Nets coach Steve Nash is just running a variation of Doug Collins’ iconic play to beat the Cavaliers. “Give Kyrie or KD the ball and get the fuck out the way.” However, these Celtics aren’t the ‘89 Cavs.
Nash has rolled the ball out there and let him operate on an island. Durant’s success will always be compared to Golden State’s due to his unorthodox decision to leave amid their streak of dominance. But the contrast has never been more apparent than now when the Warriors are averaging a playoff-best 131.7 points per 100 possessions and appear like the team to beat again. Meanwhile, Durant’s Nets are staring down a 2-0 hole after Durant scored 27 points while draining only 27 percent of his field goals.
It didn’t have to be this way, even after Durant left California. After winning two titles in Golden State, then briefly playing in a third, Durant signed with the Nets and expressed his disapproval with Kerr’s vaunted motion offense.
“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” Durant said to the Wall Street Journal’s J.R. Moehringer. “We can totally rely on our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs.
“So now I have to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create points for me.”
All the lessons on off-ball movement action from one of the most flawless offenses ever were left there. A dynamic offense moves the ball around and creates an abundance of easy shots that forces all five defenders to remain in perpetual motion, creating miscues for the offense to pounce on and keeping its stars fresh. Hero ball from star players isn’t supposed to be the foundation for all four quarters. At some point, Durant decided he’d gorge on structureless isolation sets, and this series is the bloated, gassy aroma.
Nobody puts KD in a corner. He’s getting exactly what he wanted against the Celtics, with the rock in his hands. However, the Nets offense folded when the Celtics plugged driving lanes or compromised his natural ability to conjure up buckets.
Set plays and off-ball movement are anathemas to the Nets’ offense, presumably Durant’s preference. Brooklyn rarely creates offense off screens, whereas Golden State continuously sets the standard for utilizing them.
The Nets have run more iso sets than every playoff team except Philadelphia, and Golden State executes the second-fewest.
As a result, Brooklyn is whipping up just 18 assists a night in their first-round series, the second-fewest fewest assists per game of all playoff teams. It is also leaps and bounds worse, aesthetically and statistically, than the league-high 30 assists Golden State is averaging against Denver. Granted the defensive quality and personnel, Boston is a different breed. However, In the fourth quarter against Boston, their offense whittled down to Durant or Irving generating hero ball shots.
Durant’s iso frequency has ballooned to 23 percent from his regular season when he shot 51 percent in isolation. In the playoffs, the Celtics defense has bothered him into shooting a dreary 10 percent from the field in iso sets.
Irving has been better, but only because Durant’s play has set the bar low. Irving’s iso frequency has jumped from 21.8 percent to 32.6 percent from the regular season to the postseason. Durant’s 20 percent turnover frequency in isolations is the second-worst of any player with more than three possessions per game, just ahead of James Harden’s 19.2 percent.
Against a sound, defensive lineup, the Nets offense’s overreliance on savior ball has been exposed. Even without Robert Williams as the lid on their Tubberware defense, the Celtics have contained the Nets. Marcus Smart, Grant Williams and Jayson Tatum’s tenacity is bothering Durant, but Nash has been slow to counter. On every difficult Durant jumper, nine more players are staring at him like the millions watching at home.
The shot selection needs to be addressed as well. In two games, the Nets attempt as many pull-up jumpers as catch and shoot attempts. The Nets are jacking up 37 unassisted pull-up jumpers a game and making only 36.5 percent of their shots. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is shooting better than all 15 of their playoff peers on assisted catch and shoot triples but attempting fewer than anyone else in the field.
This was the problem in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder’s Velco offense mucked things up for Durant and Westbrook. During his final three years, the Thunder were bottom four in passes per game every season. Unlike Irving’s theories about the earth’s shape, time is a flat circle and Durant is doomed to repeat history alongside a mercurial point guard, operating in a stingy scheme predicated on individualism.