The Kevin Durant Saturday night brain freeze that overwhelmed him when everything was on the line seemingly was out of character for the one-time MVP. He appeared uncomfortable and tense from the opening tip as his first shot clanked off the rim so loud it was a startling sound amid the cacophonous bedlam in the building. It would get worse for Durant. He didn’t make the right basketball play as the ball consistently stayed (and died) in his hands, often preceding a dire consequence- a bad shot, a turnover, a fumbled possession. Even as Durant was determined to deliver the victory and a trip to the NBA Finals in front of the manic home crowd, which was understandable, Durant couldn’t get his mind to slow down. He rushed everything. He was as ineffective as he has ever been and that says everything about the level of pressure at this stage of the playoffs. It can force you to become someone you are not.
Durant missed more shots than the rest of his teammates attempted. Westbrook was the only exception. Durant took more shots in the first half than most players do in an entire game. He made only one three pointer. But forget the numbers. It was how it all looked, like he was playing one on five. Durant was never a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant archetype, so why act like that now?
Durant went to the line 10 times but he only had 7 rebounds in a game that required much more than that. He had the fewest rebounds of any Thunder starter. The Warriors front court star, Draymond Green, was a more efficient scorer, had more rebounds, had more assists and had more steals. So Durant also didn’t play much defense either. His defensive rating was 108.9. His pace was slower than Andre Roberson. It was a bad Kevin Durant performance in his biggest game in 4 years. Frankly, he looked scared. Or was that naked desperation.
This is playoff basketball, though. Narratives are on a loop. Durant has the chance at a re-do Monday night in Oracle. On the plus side for Durant, he can make everyone forgot his failure on Saturday night with an iconic performance we have seen from Durant countless times. It’s not his scoring and his rebounding, nor is it about Durant getting to the rim with an emphatic dunk. But, rather, the question to be answered, is what can he do to help his teammates thrive? He has to be the straw that stirs the drink. He has to do less and then he has to do a hell of a lot more.
Frankly, after seeing Saturday night, no one knows what version of Kevin Durant will take the court. Perhaps a road game will be easier, absent the hyper-desperate cravings of the home crowd who wanted that win as badly as they wanted just about anything, save a lotto jackpot. It was anticipatory excitement about a trip to the NBA Finals. But it was so much more than that.
And that’s the backstory here that makes Durant’s “F” performance live in perpetuity. That Saturday night choke job at home may be his last goodbye to the Oklahoma faithful, many of whom were disgusted at his performance and yet have serenaded and romanced Durant for his entire Thunder tenure and feel a familial sense of kinship with him. It would be a sad way to end his Thunder legacy before he leaves for somewhere else, having exhausted every ounce of diligence and untiring achievement, except when it counted the most: the NBA Finals, the Western Conference Finals.
When Durant had to be great, he succumbed to the moment and was average, at best.
His redemption will be scrutinized in a way it never would have been had he been the Kevin Durant the basketball world is used to. We are selfish to a fault at this stage of playoff basketball; give us what we know and what we are used to.
Depending on who shows up on Monday night, Durant will be redeemed, or he will be excoriated. He will be given a pass for that ugly performance or it will thrust him into a group of great players who just couldn’t handle the extreme intensity of the moment.
The Warriors have a lot at stake on Monday night. The Thunder have a lot at stake on Monday night. But Kevin Durant’s world may change on Monday night with a loss or with a win. The pressure is on his shoulders to embrace the moment, engage his teammates, play with freedom, make shots, be physical in the paint, back up his credentials as the third best player in the NBA. No one wants to believe Durant can’t be big when the situation calls for it.
But what if that is true? Great in March, small in May. Everything is on the line for Kevin Durant to redeem his reputation and to carry the Thunder to an upset win. Otherwise, he’s a trivia question.
Who was responsible for Kevin Durant’s exit from Oklahoma. That may be the easiest answer of all: Kevin Durant.
photo via llananba