Kevin Durant, almost everybody’s choice for regular season NBA MVP, scored the first two baskets in overtime for Oklahoma City in their loss to Memphis Tuesday night – and then didn’t touch the ball again until grabbing a rebound in the final minute. That was when he was fouled and missed the second of two free throws after referee Joey Crawford’s bizarre sprint and grab that disrupted Duran’ts concentration at the line. He got another chance to win the game in the final two seconds, but his long jumper missed and the Serge Ibaka follow was a half tick too late.
So Oklahoma City, one of the favorites to represent the West in the NBA finals, finds themselves on the brink of elimination in the first round and the finger pointing is in full force. Whose fault is it? Is it coach Scott Brooks, who seems content with a “fling it and hope strategy” in last second situations? Is it Russell Westbrook for dominating the ball and sometimes being better than the defense in cooling off the league’s leading scorer, Durant? Or is it KD himself, for reverting to meek and mild status and not taking control of the situation. The sad fact is that it is probably a combination of all three and it will likely lead to the end of the Thunder’s season tonight in Memphis.
In the aftermath of the fourth straight overtime game and third one the Thunder lost in the series, none of the trio instilled confidence in their ability to come back and win on the road to bring the series back to Oklahoma City. In addition to the three minute stretch in overtime where Durant was shotless after hitting two straight, he went six minutes in the final period of regulation without being involved while Westbrook, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler were firing up threes. Brooks’ explanation for the lack of touches by Durant was, well, lacking.
“We’ve got some plays where he has to space the floor. We’re giving Reggie (Jackson) some opportunities. We did that the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities,” said Brooks. “They did a good job of guarding him. We obviously have to find better looks for all of our guys.”
His guys, especially Westbrook and Jackson, could find better looks by not flying out of control down the court and throwing up off balance prayers. The two combined for 12-of-38 shooting (31.6 %) and while Durant was right around 42% on his 24 shots, I’d rather take my chances with the leading scorer and MVP shoo-in taking most of that 14 shot differential.
When asked if Durant is struggling mentally against the defense of Memphis’ Tony Allen and to a lesser degree, Tayshaun Prince, Brooks didn’t exactly say no.
“Well, he hasn’t made shots but he’s still competing. He’s a great shooter,” Brooks said. “I believe in all the work that he puts in. I believe that he’s going to come back next game and give us another great effort and I believe that his shots will fall.”
And I believe the children are our future, but that doesn’t make it so. Durant played almost 52 minutes Tuesday night – more than any other player on either team – and he is showing some signs of fatigue after four straight overtime games. That plays right into Memphis’ defensive strategy against him and Westbrook, who played 48 minutes on a still bum knee that saw him limping down the court on several occasions.
“As far as KD and Russell, we’re just trying to be aggressive, trying to be physical and make them take and make tough shots. That’s all you can do,” said Memphis point guard Mike Conley. “They’re both phenomenal players and can score at will, so you just have to try to make it tough on them. Wear them down throughout the game and hope you wear them down enough to where at the end of the game, they miss a couple of those shots.”
Durant concedes the Memphis defense has taken its toll, in part, because he hasn’t taken charge of his own game.
“It’s a little bit of both. They’ve been doing a good job, but I have to just stay disciplined on my shots and knock ‘em down. Can’t just rely on the jumpers,” said Durant. “I’ve got to be more aggressive and have to stay positive. I’ll figure out where to catch the ball and how I’m being defended.”
First of all, Durant has to actually get the ball, something that has been difficult during the series, as those stretches without shots will attest. Secondly, you wonder if KD has the burning drive to make it happen. It appeared so during the stretch when Westbrook was out following the All-Star game, as Durant went on a scoring tear and started showing some Michael Jordan-esque desire. But since Westbrook has come off of his minutes restriction, Durant has sometimes turned back into a shrinking violet. There is one cure for that and these comments make you wonder if Durant is ready to step up and take charge.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be a decoy out there and I’m fine with that. If the basketball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive on my touches,” Durant said. “If I want the ball, I’ve got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break. So, I trust my teammates with whatever decisions they make, I just gotta be better for ’em.”
Can you ever imagine Jordan, Bird, Magic or Kobe Bryant saying that? LeBron James at one point, maybe. But that’s where we are with Kevin Durant and unless he regains the fire tonight, the Thunder’s playoff hopes will be extinguished.