Kevin Durant’s name on Instagram is Easy Money Sniper. He’s one of the great shooters for his size the NBA has ever seen, a 6-foot-10 unicorn. Four times, he’s led the league in scoring.
Offense is his calling card. But in the Nets’ opening-round series, his defense will be essential, too.
In his first playoff series as a Net, Durant will be asked to spend time defending Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ All-Star forward coming off a 50-point explosion in Tuesday’s play-in round victory over Washington.
“I know how tough it’s going to be out there,” Durant said after practice Wednesday, “and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
The best chance the seventh-seeded Celtics have of stunning the second-seeded Nets is Tatum carrying them. Durant will be looking to at least slow him down — no easy task.
The 6-foot-8 Tatum averaged a career-best 26.4 points this year on 45.9 percent shooting. He improved as a playmaker, notching 4.3 assists, and torched Brooklyn for 38 points on April 23 and 31 on March 11. Durant, however, didn’t play in either game, both Nets victories. In the first meeting between the teams on Christmas Day, Tatum struggled from the field, shooting 9 of 22 and scored 20 points. Durant was on the floor that day.
He prides himself on not being a one-way player, and plans to further illustrate that against the Celtics. It’s more than just limiting Tatum. It’s about help defense and supporting the other Nets on the floor.
“I think that’s the most important thing is I want my teammates to know I’m there for them,” said Durant, who averaged 1.3 blocks this year, the third-highest output of his 13-year career. “I want them to trust me out there on the defensive side of the ball, and I think that’s most of it for me.”
It won’t be easy. Tatum is one of the bright young stars in the league, and putting Durant on Tatum could backfire. Durant could get in foul trouble. He may wear down. It might take away some of his potency on the offensive end.
“That’s a part of playoff basketball. You’ve got to play both ends of the floor and you’re gonna expend a lot of energy,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “But that’s why Kevin trains the way he does and that’s why he’s the player he is. He can impact the game at both ends at the highest level. He’ll have a lot of possessions where he’s guarding Tatum and he’s gonna have to work hard to slow him down and so is everyone else who gets matched up with him.”
Durant agreed with Nash. He’s not looking at it like he will have to sacrifice anything. He plans to play hard at both ends of the floor and doesn’t see the task of guarding Tatum as taking away what he can provide on the offensive end.
Defense, of course, is the big question with the Nets. They are arguably the premier offensive team in the league, a unit that was first in offensive rating, and features a gifted trio in Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving that is the most talented threesome in the NBA. Defensively, though, they were 22nd in defensive efficiency.
The Nets have discussed the importance of the defensive end in recent days, the need to be focused and dedicated to that end of the floor for all 48 minutes starting Saturday night. No slip-ups. No lapses. Offense, Harden said, will take care of itself.
“We have to bring several things — obviously, scoring is not one of them — but our defensive mindset, that has to happen like every single possession of games,” Harden said. “And if we can get that — the faster we can get that — it’s going to be pretty tough for teams to beat us. Because, defensively, if we can get stops, offensively, we score so efficiently that you can’t catch up to us.”
It will start with Durant. For once, offense may not be his most important contribution.