I watch Kevin Durant warm up almost every single home game. I know his routine, I know his process. Even when the shots don’t count, it’s basketball poetry, with his effortless flicked shots, rotating perfectly to their destination.
But as he crossed the threshold from the concrete onto the hardwood tonight with about 90 minutes before tipoff, he paused in the deep left corner, closed his eyes and leaned over. He stood there, for a solid minute. I’ve never seen him do that before.
On his shoes, he had written “it’s just bball.” I’ve never seen that before.
Then he popped his head up, looked over at assistant Brian Keefe who fired him a pass. Durant’s first shot? An airball. Durant laughed, and looked over at Keefe who was doing the same, shaking his head. It was a meaningless warmup shot, and Durant went on to make more than he missed in his 15-minute session. But I couldn’t help but feel like what I watched told me the story of this series.
Durant, feeling the weight of being considered possibly the best player in the game this season, and struggling in the biggest moments when his team badly needs him, seems to be pressing. I don’t know if Tony Allen is inside Durant’s head, or if Durant’s in his own head. Whatever it is, he’s not been himself in this series. Needing 25 shots a game to average 28 points, with a shooting split of 40/29/72. Missing big free throws, playing “decoy” by his own admission, turning the ball over, not dominating the game he is completely capable of.
A popular question has been if he’s tired, both mentally and physically. He played more than 3,100 minutes this regular season, and had that stretch of games carrying the team for a month and a half without Russell Westbrook. Because the team slacked, he had to play 45 minutes then 43 minutes against the Pelicans and Pistons to wrap the No. 2 seed. Fatigue has always been a talking point for reporters with Scott Brooks, but it’s routinely been dismissed as “this guy is young, he can handle it.” No doubt he can. Durant can play 45 minutes, then turn around and go play pickup for two hours later that night. He’s a basketball junkie that has a never-ending tank of gas when it comes to the roundball.
I don’t think Durant is physically tired, as much as he’s worn out, if that makes sense. He’s worn down by Tony Allen hounding and grabbing him, with no respite from the officiating crew. He’s worn down by the bad shots he’s getting and the lack of space he’s finding. He’s worn down by the increasing pressure of being the first (likely) MVP to lose in the first round since Dirk in 2007.
But we’ve seen Durant for long enough to know he’s a great one. He’s not just some good player having a great season. He’s headed for legendary NBA status, for history. He’s better than he’s played. And there will reach a defining moment for him where he has to make his statement. He’s had great playoff games, hit more clutch shots than I can remember, and made countless plays in big spots. But as the series transitions to a literal must-win Game 6, it has to be his time.
I know the situations aren’t entirely comparable, but I can’t help but relate what’s ahead to LeBron’s Game 6 in Boston, when the Heat were facing implosion, Erik Spoelstra was on the hottest of seats, and the legacy of the game’s best player was in doubt. LeBron showed up with a quiet, almost scary confidence, and just owned the game for 48 minutes. Durant could have that moment Thursday night. Because the Thunder need him to.
Derek Fisher said at practice on Wednesday the opposite. That the Thunder have to play as a team, that they have to move and space and trust. Blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard that same shit for five years now, and we know better by now. They don’t do that. They rely entirely on Westbrook and Durant, and despite blips on the radar like Reggie Jackson’s Game 4 and the occasional game where they involve Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s season is in the hands of those two young stars. By design.
“At this point to isolate Kevin … that’s what we’ve been trying to get away from all season. That this is not about Kevin and Russell. This is about our team,” Fisher said. “And so we’ve been put now in this position that now is not the time to say oh Kevin and Russell you have to save us. It’s about our team figuring out a way to get this done. And we have to stay in that place. We cannot put all this on because Kevin is shooting a particular percentage.”
Fisher was asked about the team’s bad habits and if Brooks and his staff just aren’t coaching those points. There was really no right answer for him to give. It was a “have you stopped beating your wife?” kind of position. If Fisher said no, that’s bad. If Fisher said yes — which is what he did — that the players just aren’t taking that into action, then it just means they aren’t responding and listening. They’ve been given so much license by Brooks that those things he’s saying aren’t sinking in. There’s no accountability, no discipline.
It’s hard not to look at the box score last night and point a finger at Russell Westbrook. He took 31 shots, seven 3s with just one make, and outside of the restricted area, only hit 3-17. He had a triple-double, but it felt empty. During a six minute stretch where Durant barely sniffed the ball in the fourth, it was Westbrook and Reggie Jackson with the ball.
But this isn’t on Westbrook. It’s on the coach that has empowered him to play this way. When it works and Westbrook’s frantic aggressiveness is bottled just right, it’s a beautiful, unstoppable thing. Right now though, he’s just crossed that threshold to reckless and out of control. And it’s not his fault. Watch the tape of last night’s game. The offense is based around one action, a single trigger with no counters or options off that. And when Tony Allen easily denies Durant the ball, Westbrook routinely has a ticking time bomb in his hands with 12 on the shot clock, forced to make a play.
“Coaching only gets you so far,” Fisher said. “And once the game starts, there’s not anything happening out there that we haven’t been prepared to handle.”
They may be prepared, but they not taking that preparation and turning it into action. As Tom Haberstroh wrote today, the Thunder aren’t passing the ball, aren’t sharing, aren’t spacing. They talk constantly about doing those things; they do not do those things.
But in the end, it’s always been about Durant. Despite what Fisher says, Durant is the Thunder. In Game 5, he took 24 shots. Per SportVU, 22 of them were contested, meaning two were not. He is getting nothing easy, nothing simple. Westbrook? He had 17 contested looks and 13 uncontested. Courtney Lee said early in the series they want Westbrook to shoot, and the proof is right there. It’s not always on Durant to simply just shoot the ball better. We’ve been spoiled watching him make absurdly difficult shots because he’s that amazing. It’s not that easy.
Brooks and the team keeping noting how close the games have been and how they just need a play or two to go their way and they’ll be fine. But they shouldn’t even need those few plays. Because they’re better than the Grizzlies. I didn’t pick the Thunder to win this series in five games because I type with a foam finger on. It’s because everything we’ve seen all season long tells us that Kevin Durant was going to be the best player on the floor and thereby, the Thunder were going to win games. Game 1 went according to plan. The Grizzlies punched back in Game 2, and started this absurd string of overtime games.
And while yes, the games have been stupidly competitive and close, decided by a bounce here or a call there, it shouldn’t be coming to that. Because the Thunder are better. But they only have one more chance before we’re forced to admit otherwise.