Brooks, Durant downplay defense
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The basketball world may still be buzzing about Kevin Durant's late-game defense against Kobe Bryant, a surprise performance holding the league's premier crunch time player to just two-for-10 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Durant and Thunder coach Scott Brooks, however, were intent during Friday's shootaround on downplaying the 2009 scoring champion's achievement on the other side of the ball.
"Kobe Bryant is the best player in the world," Durant insisted. "Some of those shots he missed, maybe two or three of those shots were me, but other than that, he just missed shots. I know next time, he's gonna come back more focused and more ready for the fourth game. Hopefully, he'll miss those shots he takes the next game."
In particular, Durant's length seemed to make life difficult for Bryant, but when asked if his wingspan makes him a tough matchup for the Lakers' star, Durant was again reluctant to give himself much credit.
"I don't know if I'm a tough matchup," he said. "Thirteen years in the league, I'm sure he's seen defenders like myself. I just try to play as hard as I can. If he makes shots, I can't get down on myself, because like I said, he makes tough shots. It's all about playing hard and relying on my teammates."
Brooks was similarly low key, complimenting his player's efforts but making it clear no formula had been discovered for stopping Bryant.
"I've followed him for many years," Brooks said. "He's one of the players, he makes tough shots. Kevin was making him take tough shots but he's made tough shots throughout his career. We have to continue to really challenge ourselves to make him take those tough shots. And if he makes them, we have to just go down to the other end of the court and try to make a play ourselves.
"Kevin did a good job, and I'm not going to say he did not do a good job and shy away from that. But Kobe's one of the best players and you have to keep it up. You can't give into his greatness. You have to challenge him."
Game 4 figures to showcase a rematch between a future Hall of Famer and one of the young guns looking to usurp his status, but Durant cautioned fans not to expect fireworks from the opening tip.
"There's times where we're gonna be mixing and matching in transition where I have to go guard him," Durant said. "But I'm sure I won't start the game off on him. Thabo [Sefalosha] will have his regular duties in guarding him tomorrow."
Brooks echoed Durant's assessment, labeling the assignment a strategy dictated by the game's flow.
"Definitely, we'll look into it," Brooks said. "[But] we have two or three defenders who can do a good job on Kobe, as good a job as we can possibly do. I thought Thabo's length is good. Jeff [Green], his effort has always been good. It's kind of an interesting dynamic when you can throw three or four different guys on a player. It gives them a different thing to look at."
A learning lesson for Durant
Despite remaining modest about his work against Bryant, Durant was willing to accept praise for his maturity in the process. Despite spending most of the game unable to get his shot to fall, Durant kept his head in the game, focusing on rebounding, passing and defense until his shot returned. Eventually, it did, proof positive of a message his coach often likes to send.
"That's what it's all about," Durant said. "Coach was saying something I didn't believe, but if you do other things, then scoring's gonna come around. I was, 'Nah, that's not true.' Because if you're off, you're off, right? But it does happen. It does help. It gives you confidence that the next shot's gonna go down. I think the crowd helped me with that and my teammates did as well. So I was able to make some shots.
"Last night, I couldn't throw a rock in the ocean. I couldn't get anything going for me. I was upset with myself. But my teammates, everybody encouraged me, just told me to keep going. That's what I did."
Seeing his player grasp this message was a reward Brooks clearly relishes as a coach.
"It's a very important lesson," Brooks said. "In the game of basketball, offensively, you're not gonna be on every game. It's just impossible. The greatest players of all time have bad shooting games and bad shooting slumps. And when Kevin understands that, and he's done a better job with that this year but right now he fully understands it, you have to do other things to help your team win.
"Kevin can rebound. He's our best rebounder. He can block shots. He's had multiple games where he's had, two, three, four blocks. He's a playmaker. He had four assists last night. When you're shot is not falling, you have to do other things. We have a group of guys that do that. They all chip in and figure out ways to help us win."
The opening quarters of each game in this series haven't been fruitful for the Thunder. They've been outscored 80-53 overall and have yet to win a first period. Despite the frustration of seeing his team constantly playing from behind, Brooks was able to maintain a sense of humor when asked to explain the first-quarter difficulties.
"Maybe we're just better at playing 36 minutes," Brooks said. "So many guys are so close to high school. They're used to doing that."
Still, Brooks remains well aware his team is playing with fire by putting itself in a hole to start each game.
"You don't get away too many times by not having a good first quarter against the Lakers or other elite teams in basketball," Brooks said. "We gotta play better in the first quarter. They've done a great job of coming out and hitting us first."
For what it's worth, the Thunder have been steadily closing the gap between themselves and the Lakers after the opening 12 minutes of play. They finished Game 1 behind 14 points, then eight in Game 2, and five in Game 3.