Watching a Kevin Durant play is a bit like spending the summer in the South. You know what to expect and prepare for, but you still find yourself saying to others, “Man, can you believe this heat?”
Even the fiercest NBA fan knows Durant as one of the best offensive players of all time. But this year, Durant has outdone himself. With 14 games, before Tuesday’s game with Golden State, Durant was on course for one of the best seasons of his career. He had carried the net to the 10-4 record, despite not having Kyrie Irving as a playmaker by his side, and with James Harden off to a slower-than-expected start. Durant is on a serious run for his second best player award.
He averages 29.6 points per game to lead the NBA — and he does so with what would be his best 58.6 percent of field goals. Durant’s true shooting ratio – a measure of offensive efficiency that includes free throws and 3-point shooting – is 0.682, placing him among the league leaders.
Under the hood, however, is another impressive stat that makes this season different: Durant’s mid-range game is buzzing at an absurd level never seen before.
While mid-range picks have generally fallen out of vogue in the NBA over the past decade, Durant has long made them a calling card. The middle range is generally defined as the area outside the free-throw lane but inside the 3-point line, which is just under 24 feet from the basket and closer in the corners.
Durant shoots a whopping 70.3 percent between 16 feet of the basket and the 3-point line. To put that into perspective, he’s shot better than 50 percent of that range over an entire season only twice in his past 13 active seasons. Usually one-fifth of his shots come from this distance, with another fifth coming out from 10-16 feet (some of these shots may have come from inside the free-throw lane).
Teams mostly stay away from committing an offense in that area because recent analysis calculates the most efficient shots to be those in the basket or outside the three-point line. But when you’re shooting as Durant does, these guidelines don’t apply to you. Occupying that in-between space on the court is such an important part of Durant’s game — that his typical warm-up routine features the exact repetition of mid-range shots.
Durant’s most unstoppable weapon is the drag jacket, and given his 6-foot-10 height, that’s what allows him to be extremely dangerous from this range. The opposing defenders are usually not tall enough to properly challenge them, and those without foot speed to prevent Durant from getting into position and moving up.
In the Nets’ first offensive possession against Oklahoma City on Sunday, Durant grabbed the ball on the baseline and, in the blink of an eye, stopped to jump 18 feet over 6-foot-8 Thunder striker Darius Pazeley. Durant’s slower players might have stepped back a few feet and shot a triple pointer, and shorter players might have tried to drive. But Durant is fast enough to drive right or left and long enough to shoot Bazley or bring him back down at the post. Bazley was at a disadvantage the moment Durant grabbed the ball.
Durant often turns into a secondary move in the midrange, which is a variation on the dip jump, sometimes one leg. One example: In the second quarter of Sunday, again with Bazley facing off with him, Durant slipped off his opponent at the post. Thunder, realizing that Bazley was too much, sent a second defender to try and disrupt Durant. We don’t respond. Durant simply turned and flew away from both defenders in the air and crashed into a bird. Neither of them was tall enough to disable his vision of the basket. In the third quarter, he hit an almost identical shot.
Defenders often try to gain advantages by anticipating the movements of the attack and being a split second faster. But how does one prepare for Durant, who is doing all the usual things well, and is an eager menace from an area of the court that we don’t have to worry about? And how does one properly compete in a fadeaway game when your opponent is already taller than you? Durant’s ability to dominate in an overlooked area opens up a world of options for nets, in that it forces defenses to have a game plan to guard players across the field, rather than just a 3-point line or in the basket.
Or as Durant said in a file Posted on Twitter In 2019: “I usually play sense, if I’m hot from 3, I take a lot of 3 seconds, if it’s my average work, then this is where I’ll go to dinner. If the driveway is open, I’ll stay in paint.”
Durant is unlikely to continue shooting better than 70 percent from 16 feet all season. Chris Paul, the Suns guard and one of the best middle team players in NBA history, had his career best at 55.7 percent of that range in 2017-18. Best for Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs cornerstone known for his mid-range abilities, he was 49.4 percent in his second of 19 seasons.
With the Nets only having an average insult so far this season, they may need every bit of Durant’s underworld production to maintain their standing as a championship contender.