Yes, I am a Kevin Durant lover. Outside of Derrick Rose, he is my favorite NBA player. Heck, I even suggested he has the tools and characteristics to someday become as good as the man simply known as MJ. So just to preface, I am running to the defense of KD.
This is in response to Durant taking some heat for his Oklahoma City Thunder team failing to move past the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals, official as of about midnight central time this morning. Most of this heat comes from Kevin’s ‘failure’ to come up clutch since Game 1, when he hit the game winning shot to give OKC their only win of the series. This was especially highlighted in Game 4 on Monday night, when Durant went a combined 2-13 from the field in the 4th quarter and overtime in a Thunder defeat.
Last night he struggled against triple teams, yes triple teams, from the Grizzlies and went 5-21 from the field and 0-4 from deep. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins was pretty clear with his intentions defensively: don’t let the game’s best scorer beat us. If we’re going to lose, let under-performing role players for OKC do it. Not KD. With the Grizz heading to their first Western Conference Finals in franchise history, Hollins looks like a pretty smart man.
Not that it was hard to figure out.
When Durant’s running mate and fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook was officially announced out for the playoffs with a knee injury, the Thunder knew they had a challenge to overcome. Even the 8th seeded Houston Rockets took advantage of Westbrook’s absence, pushing OKC to 6 games after they started in a 3-0 hole.
Other than losing Russell’s explosive play and innate ability to score the basketball, the loss of their point guard was a significant hit for two other reasons:
1) Adjusting to losing an All-Star is incredibly difficult in the playoffs
2) Westbrook’s backup, Reggie Jackson, absolutely killed the Thunder at times.
Against the young and inexperienced Rockets, Durant was able to reach back and carry his squad past upstart Houston, who were carried by former OKC sensation James Harden. Against the big, bad and balanced Grizzlies? That’s a whole different story. Memphis’ ability to throw Tony Allen and Tyshaun Prince at Durant, as well as some physical chip-offs from Zach Randolph, was instrumental in slowing down the three-time scoring champ.
With no time to prepare for life with out Westbrook, Durant clearly struggled against the Grizzlies’ defensive strategy and size (and still averaged 29, 11 and 7). There are no breathers in the playoffs. While coach Scott Brooks probably did his best job of making adjustments for his superstar and other players, there just isn’t enough time to equip for playing with a new man at the point guard position. Or any position for that matter.
Ask the Bulls from last season. After they lost Derrick Rose Game 1 in the first round, the Philadelphia 76ers went on to win the series 4-2, as CJ Watson struggled to run the show in Derrick’s absence. Watson was extremely effective off the bench all season, but simply wasn’t ready for the endeavor of being the full time point guard. The Bulls this season? Played all year without Rose, ended up winning a playoff series against the Nets and gave the South Beach Heat as much as they could handle. And the Brooklyn Nets from this year are worlds better than the ’11-12 Sixers.
The Westbrook injury became a double whammy simply because his replacement, Reggie Jackson, had stretches against Memphis that killed rallies from the Thunder. For example, there was a three play stretch last night that especially showed Jackson’s inexperience. With OKC riding a little momentum and getting the crowd back into it, Jackson took a three pointer after hesitating on a pass from Durant and left it short. His man Mike Conley got an offensive rebound on the other end of the court. After Memphis scored, Jackson came down and turned it over without passing the ball to Durant. Grizzlies go down and score again.
Game, set, match.
It’s not Reggie Jackson’s fault. He’s in just his second year and was thrust into a role not fit for him. He provided some needed scoring, but unfortunately offset a lot of that with turnovers and poor decisions. Frankly, it’s nobody’s fault. Injuries happen in sports, and plenty of credit can and should be given to the Grizzlies.
But most of all, it’s not Kevin Durant’s fault. Before his woes this series, he’s long been known as a clutch performer, and someone eager to take the big shot(s) down the stretch. Carrying the load-all game, every game-significantly diminished his ability to reach another level late in the game, like he has done for the better part of his career. This year just wasn’t meant to be for him. Like last year’s Finals loss to the Heat, Durant will learn from this experience. And he will only be better for trying to carry his squad past a very good Memphis team.
At just 24, Durant seems to be entering a pretty big window to start winning some rings. Like his pal Lebron James, Kevin is learning that it can be pretty tough to win it all by yourself. (For the record, Mo Williams=Kevin Martin). Unlike Lebron, he hasn’t heard nearly as much criticism about it. That could be for multiple reasons, with how they talk to referees being the clubhouse leader. I doubt Kevin will need to leave the city that drafted him, as Westbrook and him should be title contenders together for the next few seasons at least. I have a feeling this off-season will be one with some goals in mind for both of the young dynamos.
The NBA, more than any other league, has shown that players and teams that “pay their dues” are the ones that win NBA titles. James did it, losing in the NBA Finals twice before winning. The team that beat him the second time, the Dallas Mavericks, had veteran players like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry who had all paid their dues for that ever elusive ring. Kidd and Nowitzki more than likely cemented their Hall of Fame careers with it.
If you’re Kevin Durant, you know in your mind that you have paid your dues. Last year’s loss to the Heat and this year’s devastating injury to his wingman make that much clear. For him, it has to seem like an eternity he has gone without winning a title. It usually does for elite competitors like himself. However, he must remind himself that this league is about paying your dues and overcoming adversities to add rings to the scoring title collection. Don’t worry everyone.
His time will come.
Featured Image courtesy of Gameface Photos)