Warriors

Even Kevin Durant is surprised he's become a rim protector

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AP

Even Kevin Durant is surprised he's become a rim protector

A cursory glance at individual stat leaders in the NBA finds a couple familiar names in unfamiliar places, such as Magic power forward Aaron Gordon owning the best 3-point shooting percentage among regulars.

Another name on the surprise list: Warriors small forward Kevin Durant, ranking No. 2 in blocked shots.

The four-time NBA scoring champion is behind only Utah center Rudy Gobert, but ahead of established paint prowlers Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol.

“It’s a very, very young season,” Durant told reporters Wednesday in San Antonio. “I can’t get excited about it. But it is pretty cool to be up there with so many great shot-blockers and rim protectors in the league.

“I’m sure the cream will rise to the top as the season goes on. But, hopefully, I’ll continue to just be there for my teammates.”

The high ranking may be a source of wonder for Durant, but it comes as more of a Eureka moment for the Warriors coach who knows him best.

Assistant coach Ron Adams has been in the profession for 45 years, the last three with the Warriors. He spent two years as an assistant in Oklahoma City (2008-10) during Durant’s second and third NBA seasons and addressed his defense this week on the NBC Sports Bay Area Warriors Insider Podcast.

“When I first was with Kevin as a 20-year-old . . . I thought, defensively, the sky was the limit for him,” Adams said. “He has been, over the course of time, a really great defender at times and then an inconsistent defender. He’s developing a real appetite for defense.”

Consider Durant’s shot-blocking numbers. He’s averaging 2.38 through the first eight games. He averaged 1.60 last season, ranking ninth in the league. His 1.18 blocks average in 2015-16 ranked No. 30. The year before that, Durant played only 27 games due to injuries but would have finished 44th if he had played enough games to qualify. The year before, 2013-14, Durant played 81 games and averaged .73 blocks, finishing 54th in the league.

As Adams pointed out, Durant’s evolution is of a four-time scoring champion now becoming more of a factor on defense.

Though Durant’s 105.4 defensive rating is unimpressive, it is the best among the five starters for a Warriors team posting sub-mediocre numbers on that side of the ball. His blocks indicate his greatest defensive impact has been as a rim protector.

Therein lies the surprise, at least to Durant, in his second season with the Warriors.

“I didn’t really know that that’s what they wanted me to do when I came here,” he said. “I knew that they’ll need me to pretty much show my full arsenal of my game, and I try to learn as much as I can on the fly, especially in the defensive schemes that we have here.

“I pride myself on just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can every time I’m out there. I’ve been learning a lot about help-side defense and team defense and not worrying about just (my) man all the time. I’m getting better at it.”

Adams likes what he sees, to a point.

“He’s had some really good (defensive) stretches this season, bordering on brilliant,” he said of Durant. “Other times, he does not do what I think he can do. That’s the battle.”

It’s not likely Durant will remain among the top five shot-blockers this season. But he clearly is getting better at that particular skill.

Yet he’s likely to lose a few percentage points on blocks, which he’d be willing to sacrifice if it means a better overall defensive rating.

One thing is pretty clear about these Warriors after 2-2 road trip

One thing is pretty clear about these Warriors after 2-2 road trip

The Warriors are not ready to flip their seek-and-destroy switch. Not yet.

They’re closer to being ready than, say, their longtime rivals in Cleveland, but in going 2-2 on this four-game road trip the Warriors showed they are nowhere near full annihilation mode.

They went into Oklahoma City Wednesday night and, in gulping down a 108-91 loss on national TV, came away looking more vulnerable than they have in any game this season. The 17-point loss was their largest margin of defeat and this was awful close to being a wire-to-wire rout.

The Warriors defense, so splendid during the seven-game win streak they took out of town last week, was inconsistent throughout and downright atrocious by their standards as they concluded the trip.

Their offense, which had begun reducing the turnovers to acceptable levels, came apart like a pair of $3 sneakers.

Even their body language, aside from two well-deserved technical fouls, seemed to mostly vacillate between whispers and a whimpers.

“We didn’t have any focus or concentration,” coach Steve Kerr said. “The ‘millennials’ couldn’t lock in tonight. And their coach couldn’t do much either. Long night for us.”

These were not the Warriors who posted seven consecutive double-digit wins, and they’re certainly not the team that found its competitive blowtorches last April. They weren’t visible in this game, nor were they seen for most of this road trip.

This, ahem, regular-season road trip.

That’s the catch. Last April is when the playoffs got underway, and next April is when the 2018 playoffs begin. The time between now and then is for experimenting, fine-tuning and fighting through the monotonous joys of victory -- a factor on vivid display Wednesday night.

“We played with some decent energy,” Stephen Curry said. “We just didn’t play smart.”

“They completely outplayed us, outcoached us,” Kerr said. “It was just their night. It was absolutely their night. They brought the energy, they brought the juice, they brought the intelligence. And we didn’t bring any of that.”

The Warriors entered the game after studying video and stats that illustrated OKC’s ability to disrupt an offense. The Thunder leads the NBA in steals, deflections and -- this one punches the Warriors in the gut -- forcing turnovers.

The Warriors committed 22 giveaways, leading directly to 34 Thunder points.

“Thirty-four points off turnovers, you can’t win like that,” Draymond Green said.

“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready to play,” Kerr said. “We have a pretty loose, fun atmosphere around here. That’s great, but there are certain times where it’s like, ‘All right guys. Let’s throw it to our team. Let’s execute the play. Let’s remember the play.’ ”

Kevin Durant bemoaned the “silly turnovers” that were such a factor in the game, blaming it players rather than Kerr and his staff.

“For the most part he can’t control that type of stuff,” said Durant, whose four turnovers were second to Curry’s team-high six. “We’ve got to be better at keeping the ball in our hands, shooting more shots than our opponents and playing defense.”

Added Green: “We were pretty well-prepared. We just played bad.”

That happens to even the best of teams, a category in which the defending champions fit quite snugly. No team, not even the Chicago Bulls of the maniacally competitive Michael Jordan, is able to bring its best for 82 games a season.

The Warriors blew two 17-point leads, one in second quarter and another in the third, in losing at Boston.

They fell behind by 24 in the third quarter to the 76ers before coming back to win in Philadelphia before recovering the next night to submit their best performance of the trip in routing Brooklyn.

And in OKC, against a Thunder team that would seem to get their full attention, the Warriors were outhustled, outsmarted and played with considerably less fury.

“Right now, we’re just in a little bit of rut, where we’ve got to focus,” Kerr said. “And I know we will. We’ve done this many times in the past and bounced back. And we’ll bounce back. We need to lock in and tighten up everything.”

They will, eventually. It could happen next week, or next month, or after the calendar turns to 2018. They’ll turn it on and become the team of terror, punishing all before them. It might be April, though.

This road game indicated some truth, though, which is there will be games over the next four months in which they will lose the battle with themselves.

Durant addresses scuffles with Westbrook after Warriors' loss: 'That's just ball'

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AP

Durant addresses scuffles with Westbrook after Warriors' loss: 'That's just ball'

As you might expect when Kevin Durant returns to Oklahoma City, things got chippy at several moments Wednesday.

Once during the second quarter and again in the third quarter, Durant and former running mate Russell Westbrook could be seen yapping at each other. During the latter incident, the two literally went nose-to-nose, touching foreheads before being sperated.

After the Warriors' 108-91 loss to the Thunder, Durant was asked about the exchanges.

"Man, that's just ball. That's just ball me. He's competitive, I'm competitive. We like to go at it. Both of us. That's just part of the game, so I respect it. I got nothing but love for him. I'm expecting it again when we play them again. All fun and games to me," Durant told reporters.

Despite what the cameras caught, Durant tried to downplay the level of emotions between the two teams on the court.

"Can't let emotion seep into business. Can't do that. So I think on our end, we were just playing our game. They just played better than us tonight. The emotion around the court, around the arena, around the city I'm sure was a little higher than it was on the court. can't let emotion seep in. Just have to play better than that," Durant said.

When a reporter kept pressing about the incidents between Durant and Westbrook, the Warriors forward pushed back.

"Did you watch the game? Or did you watch for the scuffles? The story is about the game. We lost, they kicked our a**, they played a great. You should give them credit for how they played. We should be better. It's not about who's in each other's faces. That stuff is not real. So please, don't believe it. All the fans, they are lying to you. It's all about basketball. They played a great game. We didn't," Durant retorted.

So how did returning to his former home for the first time this season compare to his first trip back last year?

"It was a little better. Nothing like the first. I'm sure everyone in the arena said what they had to say," Durant said.

The next two times Durant and Westbrook meet up, it will be in Oakland (Feb.6 and Feb. 24). The Warriors don't return to Oklahoma City until April 3, 2018.