The Philosophy of an Elite Defender

In the New York Times Basketball Blog, Off the Dribble, Beckley Mason does a Profile in Courage on Andrei Kirilenko that reads more like documenting a suicide mission. Mason explains:

Guarding Durant requires a certain fatalistic mind-set. An ability to remain stubborn and committed in the face of insuperable odds. On Thursday the player who sternly accepted the task was Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko. As in some corny 1980s movie in which the old Soviet Union must design a human weapon capable of combating the great American hero, Kirilenko is as close to a Durant doppelgänger as there exists in the N.B.A. His nimble feet and fantastic reach allow him to occupy huge swaths of the court, just as Durant’s size enables him to score in the tiniest of spaces.

A look at the stat sheet would suggest Durant dominated Kirilenko. He exceeded his gaudy season averages for field goal percentage and points, going for 33 points on 12-of-21 shooting.

I’m glad someone understands the Russian-American overtones of this matchup.

Kirilenko explains that the hard part is not actually stopping Durant once he gets the ball, because that is next to impossible. The focus for a defender tasked with slowing Durant must be on prevention. For Kirilenko, that means steadily applying pressure and resistance all over the halfcourt throughout the game, even when, as the great scorer rains down jumpers, the desperate effort appears to be futile.

It’s funny how often the cliche, “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” gets thrown around, and yet making an efficient scorer like Durant work to get the ball is perceived as a fresh and unique technique.

“You saw in the second half, I was trying in the halfcourt to deny him, to not let him get that ball easily. If you want to get it, go work for it. For those guys who are playing 40 minutes every game, it’s tough when he’s working and working and working to get that ball.”

It is refreshing to see such understanding from a Wolves player. The image of Michael Beasley or Rashad McCants getting down into a mano-a-mano defensive stance just before LeBron or Wade or Durant or Kobe would rise up and can a jumper in their eye makes AK’s understanding an unpleasant memory.

Kirilenko’s resignation to Durant’s talent and his steadfast willingness to work hard anyway made him something of a Sisyphean character in Thursday night’s drama. He certainly did not give as good as he got when it came to his matchup with Durant. His exertion on the defensive end seemed to hurt his scoring; he made 3 of 10 shots in 40 minutes on the court. In the box score, and to anyone who watched the fourth quarter, it was the offensive explosion of tiny Jose Juan Barea that propelled Minnesota to victory and snapped the Thunder’s 11-game win streak.

Such is life for the elite N.B.A. defenders who night after night tangle with the likes of Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Kirilenko can do everything right but admits that “all you can do is break their percentage or make them work.”

A lot of players would see the stat sheet as an indictment of their play. AK’s maturity has a chance to pay off more dividends against New York and Carmelo new-and-improved isolation hero-ball on Sunday.

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Tags: Andrei Kirilenko Minnesota Timberwolves NBA News New York Times

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