NBA Playoffs 2022: How the Boston Celtics are neutralizing Kevin Durant — and what the Nets can do to counter

The one thing that’s clear through two games of this incredible Brooklyn NetsBoston Celtics series is this: Boston is keying in — successfully — on Kevin Durant.

The 12-time All-Star, one of the greatest offensive threats in NBA history, still scored 50 points in the first two games in Boston, and hit 18 free throws in 20 attempts in Game 2, a career-high. But his relative lack of production raises two critical questions as the series heads to Brooklyn.

1) How have the Celtics managed to keep Durant in check?

2) Is there anything the Nets can do to get him going as the team tries to crawl out of its 2-0 deficit?

Durant’s 4-of-17 shooting Wednesday was his worst in the postseason since his final playoff run with the Oklahoma City Thunder (2016). And as my ESPN colleague Kirk Goldsberry noted on Twitter, both Durant’s back-to-back games with shooting percentages under 40% and six-plus turnovers and his 0-of-10 shooting in the second half of Game 2 were firsts in his illustrious career.

Let’s take a closer look at what the Celtics’ defense, which held opponents to the fewest points per possession of any team during the regular season, is doing to contain Durant and how Brooklyn might counter at home.

Celtics making Durant work — for everything

According to Second Spectrum tracking analysis, an average shooter would be expected to post a 36.5% effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) on Durant’s attempts through the first two games, based on the location and type of shots and the distance of nearby defenders. That’s the lowest quantified shot quality (qSQ) for any player in the postseason.

In part, Boston has done this by keeping Durant away from the basket. During the regular season, 36.5% of his shot attempts were scored as coming within the paint according to NBA Advanced Stats. Just five of his 41 attempts in the first two games (12%) have come from the paint as the Celtics have done a terrific job of showing help on Durant during the rare occasions where he has gotten an edge on his defensive matchup.

Of course, Durant has been known to feast on difficult shots. His qSQ was second-lowest in last year’s playoffs, ahead of only Julius Randle, which didn’t stop Durant from posting a 57% eFG when factoring 3s as 1.5 field goals to account for their added value. Durant isn’t an average shooter, after all.

Second Spectrum’s quantified shooter impact (qSI) metric measures how a player performs relative to the difficulty of their shots for an average player. Among everyone with at least 100 shot attempts in the 2021 playoffs, Durant’s 14.8 qSI ranked second behind Seth Curry. They flip-flopped places during the 2021-22 regular season, with Durant (13.7) edging out his new teammate Curry. That’s dropped to a -2.3 qSI in the first two games of the series, which ranks 37th of 55 players who have taken at least 25 shots.

To some extent, that’s an indication that Durant will shoot better going forward. However, it’s likely also a testament to Boston making those shots even more difficult than they look in the tracking data.

Few easy matchups for Durant

The Celtics’ deep pool of strong individual defenders makes them a uniquely challenging matchup for Durant. Although Jayson Tatum has gotten the primary defensive assignment, Jaylen BrownAl Horford, Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and Grant Williams have also taken turns defending Durant with varying degrees of success.

When two of those defenders have been involved, Boston has been willing to switch pick-and-rolls set for Durant, allowing the Celtics to stay out of the kind of rotations that helped Durant hand out double-figure assists four times in his last seven games prior to the playoffs. (He’s got eight total through two games in this series.) At the same time, Boston has also done well to mostly avoid switching Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis on Durant and conceding a one-on-one mismatch.

Within those individual matchups, the Celtics’ defenders have been diligent and disruptive. Five of Durant’s shots have been marked as blocked by four different players, the first time all season he’s been blocked more than three times in any two-game span.

Remember, Durant is rarely getting to the hoop, so these blocks have come primarily on jumpers. Per Second Spectrum tracking, just 2% of Durant’s shots outside the paint were marked as blocked during the regular season. That’s jumped to 9% in this series (three of 34). When Durant is on, it can feel impossible to affect his rhythm as a jump shooter. Boston’s defenders, particularly Tatum, have shown otherwise.

How the Nets can free up their Hall-of-Fame wing?

Steve Nash and the Nets’ coaching staff can’t count on regression and the series shifting home to Brooklyn alone to get Durant going. There’s more they can do to help generate favorable matchups and opportunities for him.

That process would start with involving the Celtics’ smaller defenders more often in two-man actions with Durant, whether he’s handling the ball or screening. Boston has been willing to switch Derrick White on Durant, but the 6-foot-4 White has to play aggressively in order to avoid Durant rising over him. That produces opportunities for fouls or can force the Celtics to second help Durant’s direction.

When he’s on the court, the 6-1 Pritchard is an even more obvious mismatch. If Boston doesn’t want to switch with Pritchard, that generates chances for his opposing number to get open looks (in the case of Curry) or play 4-on-3 out of the pick-and-roll.

Nash could also work the referees to get them to call the Celtics for fouls defending off the ball, which would allow Durant to operate more freely as a cutter.

“I think they’re being physical,” Nash said after Game 2. “They’re up and into [Durant], grabbing him, holding him, all that stuff you come to expect. He’s just been uncomfortable. It hasn’t looked like he’s been able to quite get his rhythm.”

But Durant may need to tone down his own aggressiveness. Several of his turnovers have been a product of overdribbling into crowds of defenders, something he isn’t likely to get away with against Boston’s defense. Durant may also want to ease off isolations and contested jumpers against quality defenders.

The interesting thing about the first two games against the Celtics, by dramatic contrast to last year’s season-ending loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, is how productive the Nets’ role players have been. Six Brooklyn players who have seen regular action, outside of Kyrie Irving, have made a combined 66% of their 2-point attempts and 48% of their 3s.

Granted, it’s unlikely some of the Nets’ role players will stay as hot as they were in Boston, where Bruce Brown Jr. went 4-of-5 on 3s and reserve Goran Dragic scored in double-figures in back-to-back games, matching his total in 16 regular-season games for Brooklyn. Still, the attention the Celtics’ defense is paying to Durant has made life easier for his teammates and giving them more chances to exploit it may help loosen up the coverage on him too.

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