Durant's Work on Defense Paying Off, But Warriors See Room for Improvement

OAKLAND -- Kevin Durant, four-time scoring champ, leading the Warriors in scoring, spent a considerable amount of time Tuesday talking about . . . defense.

Quality defense, featuring spectacular plays, even highlight-level stuff.

All from a guy who through his first nine NBA seasons barely could see the All-Defensive Team, much less be chosen for it.

"It's fun," Durant said of his newfound appreciation for defense. "Since I was a kid, when you think about defense, you think about getting steals and blocking shots."

" . . . I feel like I'm having a solid defensive year. I could be a lot better. I still think I could do a better job of putting a nice streak of games together on the defensive end. I'm not the greatest defender in the league; I know that. But I've grown a lot."

Though Durant is making more than his share of individual plays -- he ranks 10th in blocks, averaging a career-best 1.71 per game -- he also is taking to team concepts and proving to be a willing learner. Which is as Ron Adams, the team's defensive guru, promised after Durant left Oklahoma City last July to join the Warriors.

"He has all the physical tools to be an elite defender," Adams said at the time.

"Just about every (defensive) play that he sees, he comes and talks to me about it," Durant said of Adams. "He tells me when I need to be better, tells me when my energy needs to be a little higher than what it is.

"It's good to be coached up. Sometimes I may push back a little bit, and sometimes I just need to shut up and just listen and go do it."

The results so far have been impressive. Durant's Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks 39th in the NBA and eighth among small forwards, right behind Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo but well ahead of Houston's Trevor Ariza (12th), Cleveland's LeBron James and San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard (29th).

It's largely because of Durant that the Warriors, legitimately concerned about rim protection after losing centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, somehow lead the league in blocked shots.

If there is an area the Warriors would like to see improvement, it's consistency.

"It's a hard thing, especially as a leading scorer, to be an every-night two-way player," coach Steve Kerr said. "If you just look at the history of the league, most guys who are up there scoring, they're going to take some plays off defensively. That's what made Michael Jordan so special is he guarded every play.

"That was the challenge that we talked to Kevin about, was really being a consistent defender for us and how much we needed that. I still think he can get better with that; I still think he has an occasional lapse, and he knows that. But he's come a long way and he's a huge key to our defense, obviously with his shot-blocking but his ability to switch and guard different positions as well."

Durant clearly enjoys making game-altering defensive plays, such as his rejection of a driving James at the rim in the Warriors-Cavs game on Jan. 16. Or when he chased down Charlotte's Kemba Walker last week, swatting his layup off the glass to initiate a fast break that ended with a Stephen Curry jumper.

There have been numerous such plays, after which neither Durant are able to hide their delight.

"To know the momentum it brings to your team, just the energy it brings when your teammates see you block a shot or get a steal, I kind of feed off that," he said. "It's making me want to get down there a little bit more."

Durant may be inching his way toward All-Defensive Team status. Getting 10 votes (making him 21st in overall votes) during his 2014 MVP season is as close as he has been. He didn't get a single vote in either of the last two seasons.

"At this time in my career, that stuff doesn't even matter to me anymore," he said. "To be named one of the top 10 defenders in the league, that would definitely be cool among so many great players. But it really doesn't matter to me any more."

It matters, if not to the point of fixation but enough that you know, somewhere in the back of his mind, such an honor would be greatly appreciated. Durant was willing to admit that much.

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