Suns’ Kevin Durant just a little bit better (and taller) in win over Pacers

PHOENIX — Early in Sunday night’s fourth quarter, Kevin Durant took a pass high on the left side at Footprint Center. The Phoenix Suns forward raised the basketball to his right shoulder and looked inside.

Obi Toppin was stationed five feet in front of Durant. Toppin is in his fourth NBA season, his first with the Indiana Pacers. Unlike Durant, he has yet to make an All-Star Game, but Toppin has found a place in the NBA all the same. At 6-foot-9, he is a gifted athlete, so springy he won the 2022 Slam Dunk Contest. All things considered, he was a decent matchup for the ultra-talented Durant.

Phoenix forward Keita Bates-Diop set a ball screen, but Toppin got through it. Durant dribbled right, crossed back to his left, then cut back again, one dribble and up, fading slightly. Toppin timed it perfectly, leaping with Durant, stretching his right arm high to contest.

He was just a couple inches short. The ball swished, two of Durant’s 40 points in the Suns’ 117-100 win, their fifth in a row. The play showcased not only how difficult Durant is to defend, it also revived a question that’s been around for years:

Just how tall is this guy?

Officially, Phoenix lists Durant at 6-10. But that hasn’t always been the case. Earlier in his NBA career, he was listed at 6-9. In 2016, Durant might have come clean, telling reporters that when he talks to women he’s 7 feet, but on the basketball court he’s 6-9.

“I’ve always thought it was cool to say I’m a 6-9 forward,” Durant told The Wall Street Journal. “Really, that’s the prototypical size for a small forward. Anything taller than that, and they start saying, ‘Ah, he’s a power forward.’”

Kevin Durant, somewhere in the vicinity of 7-feet tall, shoots over the Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith during Sunday’s game in Phoenix. (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

Durant is among the best scorers in NBA history, but this season his height has helped Phoenix. In last week’s come-from-behind win over Sacramento, the Suns rallied in the final minutes with Durant playing center in a small-ball lineup. With big man Jusuf Nurkić limited with foul trouble Sunday, coach Frank Vogel used the same group late in the Indiana win.

So one more time, in the media room:

“Kevin, you’re listed at 6-10, but how close are you really to 7 feet?”

“Uh, a few inches away.”


“Why do you prefer to be listed at 6-10?”

“I really am 6-10. I’ve measured it for the last two seasons. Maybe 6-11 with my shoes on, but bare feet I’m 6-10. … I play big. I got long arms, so it may look like it. And I can guard 7-footers sometimes, but, no, I’m a 6-10 wing player.”

No one’s buying it.

This isn’t new. Basketball players have stretched the truth about their heights for years with different motivation and quirks.

When Jack Sikma entered his final college season at Illinois Wesleyan, the future Hall of Famer begged the school’s sports information director to list him at 7 feet instead of 6-11. His reasoning:

“I thought 7-footers got paid better than 6-11 guys,” Sikma told The Athletic last summer.

(Told this, former NBA assistant Garry St. Jean laughed. “I would say to you that Jack was no taller than 6-9,” he said.)

Charles Barkley was listed at 6-6 throughout his career even though he was closer to 6-4. Others went the opposite direction. During his career, Bill Walton famously claimed he was 6-11, even though his teammates suspected he was at least 7 feet.

From David Halberstam’s book “The Breaks of the Game,” published in 1981: “Six-eleven, (Walton) explained to friends, was tall, but seven feet was a freak. So Bill Walton was six feet eleven. When a reporter brought this up and suggested that he might in fact be seven feet tall, Walton had laughed and said, no, as far as he knew he was six feet eleven. At least he was the last time he was measured. Which was, he added, in his junior year in college.”

“We’d joke with him about it — ‘Man, you almost 7-1,’” Marques Johnson, who teamed with Walton in college at UCLA, said in a recent interview. “He was like, (Johnson mimics Walton’s voice), ‘No, I’m not. I’m 6-11 and 3/4.’”

Years ago, Johnson explained, 7-foot players were required to play a certain way. They were anchored to the low post, back to the basket. Screen-setters on the perimeter. But the game has changed. Seven-footers initiate offense. Shoot 3s. Move like wings. Any guesses who helped lead this change?

Kevin Durant.

About 90 seconds after scoring on Toppin, Durant penetrated and pulled up. This time Toppin didn’t have time to jump. He just turned and watched the ball fall through the net.

A possession later, Durant squared up Pacers forward Jalen Smith. Earlier, Durant had stood next to the 6-10 Smith while Indiana shot free throws. Durant was at least an inch taller. This time, the Phoenix forward dribbled between his legs, went behind his back, crossed over and pulled up. Smith tried to contest, but with Durant fading, he didn’t have a chance.

“He’s a very unusual problem,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said, an annual NBA statement, even as the 35-year-old Durant has aged. “I thought we fought them hard and had some really good possessions on them. But his ability off the dribble to rise up and complete clearance is special.”

Durant made 18 of 25 from the field and 4 of 7 from 3-point range. He’s the first player in franchise history to reach 40 points without shooting a free throw. The Suns improved to 24-18.

“Every time he took a jumper, it was like, ‘I am here, and I did my job.’ I had a hand in his face,” said Indiana small forward Aaron Nesmith, who spent time defending Durant. “He made it.”

In addition to Durant, Devin Booker scored 26 points. Bradley Beal added 25, four coming off strong drives that helped seal the win. But it was Durant who led the way, driving into the lane, pulling up and releasing a shot that no one else on the court could reach.

(Top photo of the Suns’ Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal celebrating during Sunday’s win: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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