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Kevin Durant Is Playing Like Kevin Durant Again

Kevin Durant is already one of the greatest players in modern history; that goes just as much for the playoffs as it does the regular season. Durant ranks 13th since the merger in playoff Value Over Replacement (VORP) through age 27; in six career postseasons, he’s led the Thunder to an NBA Finals berth and two other conference finals, with the possibility of a third looking surprisingly strong after Durant’s 41 points (on 25 shots) powered Oklahoma City to a win in Game 4 of the Thunder’s second series.

This season, Durant answered whatever doubts arose during his injury-riddled 2014-15 season by posting the second-best campaign of his career (on a per-minute basis). But in the playoffs, he got off to an uncharacteristically rough start. After five games against the Dallas Mavericks and a brutal Game 1 drubbing at the hands of the favored San Antonio Spurs, Durant’s postseason numbers in 2016 were the worst of his career.

YEAR GAMES TRUE SHOOTING % USAGE % DEF. RATING AVG. GAME SCORE
2013 11 57 32 103 23.1
2012 20 63 29 107 21.8
2014 19 57 32 108 20.8
2011 17 58 29 108 20.3
2010 6 50 35 107 14.1
2016 6 48 33 111 13.5
Durant’s rocky playoff start

2016 statistics through April 30

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Sure, Durant was averaging 24.3 points per contest over that span, but he was also shooting a horrific 37.1 percent from the floor, playing uninspired defense — according to SportVU player-tracking data, he was in the 23rd percentile of playoff defenders in points allowed per offensive chance — and helping teammates less than usual with his playmaking. And with more games looming against the historically dominant Spurs defense, things looked bad for Durant.

Instead, Durant has turned his playoff campaign around — strength of opponent be damned. In Game 2, he scored 28 points on his best shooting night of the playoffs to date, as the Thunder took a rare road victory at the AT&T Center. And although the Thunder lost Game 3, Durant scored 26 and continued to shoot well, providing hope that a huge KD signature game wasn’t far away.

That big game finally came in Game 4 — at least, in the second half. Held to 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting at halftime, Durant was as less-than-stellar as he’d looked earlier in the postseason. But down the stretch, he poured in 29 with an effective field goal percentage of 90.9 percent, single-handedly outscoring the Spurs 9-1 in the game’s final three minutes. OKC’s victory knotted the series up at 2-2, and added another data point to Durant’s mid-playoff statistical turnaround:

PLAYOFF GAMES TRUE SHOOTING % USAGE % DEF. RATING AVG. GAME SCORE
First six 48 33 111 13.5
Last three 66 32 107 21.2
Durant’s mid-playoff turnaround

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The obvious small-sample-size caveats strongly apply, but Durant has played like his usual self these past few games. First and foremost, he’s shooting the ball in line with his career norms again — and while most of that is due to better “shot-making” and not improved shot quality, Durant’s been an ace shot-maker for as long as we can track the statistic. For KD, not outshooting expectations is the freak outlier. He’s also played much better D, lowering his defensive rating (that’s good!) and raising his rank in points allowed per chance to the 65th percentile since May 2 despite matching up against tougher offensive competition. 1

Although the series is all tied up, San Antonio is still a 69 percent favorite to advance according to our Elo predictions. But if Durant can keep playing like the all-time great we’re accustomed to seeing don that No. 35 jersey — instead of the second-rate version who wore it early in these playoffs — the Thunder still have a decent chance to knock out one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Weighted by the number of defensive plays he had matched up against each opponent, the average player Durant has checked since May 2 had a regular-season offensive BPM of +1.5, vs. a +0.2 mark for those he was guarding through April 30.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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