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How Kevin Durant is reaching yet another level — with his defense

It was late on the East Coast, but a team scout was calling.

He’d just watched Phoenix rise back from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit against Sacramento on Jan. 16, and for all of Kevin Durant’s shot-making brilliance, it was the 35-year-old’s smothering defense that left this personnel man raving about one of the game’s greatest scorers.

Once Suns head coach Frank Vogel pulled his center, Jusuf Nurkic, off the floor, Durant marked the lone man in Phoenix’s lineup standing above 6-foot-6. He had to guard Domantas Sabonis, the Kings’ star big, who’s bruising his way to a career-high and league-leading 13.2 rebounds per game. Guarding Sabonis also meant Durant getting dragged back out to the perimeter, tasked to cover a screen for downhill demon De’Aaron Fox, or the bobbing-and-weaving Malik Monk. Play after play, the Kings thought they were stranding Durant on a deserted island, expecting him to wither against an incoming crossover. But play after play, Durant blocked Fox’s step-back, he forced a Monk turnover, he battled Sabonis in the paint on one of their misses so fervently, Durant drew a whistle and a foul on the Kings’ gifted young brute, earning two freebies from the line that he would drain with ease.

So there was Durant, two weeks later, back as the five-man in Vogel’s shiftier lineup during crunchtime in Atlanta on Feb. 2. He switched between battling with Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu and powerful forward Jalen Johnson before Durant ultimately requested the difficult assignment of combo guard Dejounte Murray. Durant stripped Johnson in transition, suffocating what would have otherwise been an easy runaway bucket. His help defense along the backline snuffed out Murray’s driving layup before Durant would end up shadowing Murray for the game’s most critical moments.

“Man, I really want to be all-around great at every area of the game, and the only way I can do that is if coach trusts me to be put in those positions,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I can’t practice that if I’m not in those positions. I’m asking for those matchups, I’m asking him to be creative with me on the defensive side so I can just get better, growing my experience and what it’s like to be an all-around defender.”

The stats suggest he's already there. The advanced numbers are outright audacious. While Durant has climbed to ninth on the NBA's all-time scoring list this season, he's also blocked 43.3% of all shots he's contested, according to Basketball Index, first among those who've logged at least 1,501 minutes. He's doing all that while guarding Usage Tier 1 players, the most ball dominant in the league, 22.93% of the time — good for a career high.

“Sometimes you have to hide top scorers just to manage their workload or whatever. But he wants that challenge each night,” Vogel said. “He’s more engaged when he’s guarding a top guy. And his 7-foot length and wingspan, and ability to slide his feet, he can guard most guys in this league, big and small.”

Durant ranks fifth in the NBA in DIFF%, per NBA.com, which means his opponents shoot 5.5% worse against Durant than compared to their season average. The only names above him are some of the sport's most fearsome rim protectors: Rudy Gobert, Evan Mobley, Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porziņģis. Back during our conversation, Durant found himself third on this list, wedged between Embiid, the reigning NBA MVP, and the interminable rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama.

He grinned at that company before chuckling at his own inclusion. “I’ll take that. That’s two great defenders right there,” he said. “I mean, Wemby is all-world, and Joel’s underrated, all-world defensively too. It’s just about staying consistent and playing hard. Realizing that, not getting discouraged, that’s the thing. There’s so many great, skilled players that can do everything, it’s just about making life tough.”

He knows, because Durant could just as easily be talking about himself. And with his length and extraordinary feel, Durant has an argument as the best perimeter defender on the planet. He watches too many games to count. He’s studied opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and preferred spots of attack. He is reading rival offenses just like he reads defenses, flipping through a book that could start at either end.

“I play against these guys in the summertime, I try to steal a little something whenever I get a chance,” Durant said. “Yeah, I try to use gameplan discipline on personnel, knowing what guys' tendencies are. I try to stop guys everywhere. But it’s still the NBA. Guys can make shots over you, guys are so talented that regardless of your defense, the offense could just be better. But they’ll feel somebody playing hard. That’s what I try to do and make life tough.”

Step inside the paint, and Durant can function as dangerously as anyone lurking on the helpside. “You don’t really think of rim protection for KD,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said. But during Durant’s best moments in Golden State and Brooklyn, he doubled as one of the game’s fiercest and timeliest shot-blockers. He almost swatted certain attempts while anchoring Phoenix’s smaller lineups too casually. Almost shrugging, as if his beloved mother, Wanda, had asked him to please grab something out of her reach on a top shelf.

“I feel like every team, if I can just help out contesting at the rim, it’s always good,” Durant said. “It’s not a conscious thing, I just feel like as much help at the rim, it’s always better for your defense. I’ve grown to like just protecting the rim and going up there and getting blocks.”

He may have to for Phoenix’s expensive championship bid to finish as the team hopes. That is the ultimate barometer for spending virtually all of the Suns’ valuable draft capital to bring Durant, and then Bradley Beal, to the franchise. Vogel’s staff has found its greatest success this season with those smaller lineups that rely so heavily on Durant’s defense, but the Suns believed they still needed better frontcourt depth on both sides of the ball, sources said, influencing the three second-round picks Phoenix sent out the door for Royce O’Neale at the trade deadline.

Will it be enough to thrive? That is one of the existential questions lingering over the Suns, just as the Lakers and the Warriors and so on face particular challenges that may seesaw their season in April or May. Durant believes they can, he can, always ready to raise a hand when Vogel has the toughest cover to assign, and all they need from there is a nod.

“I want to draw attention to my coaches more than anything,” Durant said. “They trust me in those situations, and I just want to be trusted.”