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Can Kevin Durant 'Hero Ball' Return OKC Thunder to NBA Finals?

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Can Kevin Durant 'Hero Ball' Return OKC Thunder to NBA Finals?
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It was a tale of two halves for both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of their first-round matchup, with the Thunder ultimately coming out on top 104-101 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The first half was owned by Kevin Durant and the Thunder. He put up 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting en route to a 66-49 halftime lead for OKC.

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The second half was all James Harden and the Rockets. Harden finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks.

Unfortunately for the Rockets, their epic comeback that saw them completely erase the Thunder's 26-point lead fell short at the hands of Durant and his career playoff-high 41 points.

While the Thunder escaped Game 3 with the victory, their inconsistent performance certainly didn't impress. A team that was once the clear favorite coming out of the West is now a team that has a lot of questions to answer as they look to move forward in the playoffs.

The main question that comes up is just how far Kevin Durant's "hero ball" can carry the Thunder in the playoffs.

"Hero ball" is exactly what it sounds like.

It's a player having to save his team by simply taking over games night in and night out—ultimately playing hero and "saving the day."

It's the kind of basketball that Kobe Bryant plays and is marked by high production—though sometimes from a high number of field-goal attempts. 

Brett Deering/Getty Images

The main problem with hero ball is that it's an ineffective, albeit sometimes necessary way to play the game.

And right now, without Russell Westbrook, it's the only way the Thunder can stay alive in the Western Conference.

It's ineffective most of the time, because it's dependent on the ability of the star player(s) to knock down shots on a consistent basis. If that player is not on the floor or not shooting well and his teammates are not stepping up offensively, then there's trouble. We saw this firsthand during the third quarter of Game 3, when the Thunder put up a whopping 14 points on 5-of-25 shooting from the field.

What was the difference in that quarter than the other three for the Thunder? Durant couldn't create or get open looks at the basket, so he had to defer to teammates, and his teammates weren't making the shots he was getting them.

Can Kevin Durant lead the OKC Thunder to an NBA Finals by himself?

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Another issue with hero ball is that it requires a player to be on the floor as much as possible. In Durant's case, his heroism meant playing 47 out of the 48 minutes on Saturday night.

Sure, the Thunder pulled out the win, but you could see the fatigue setting in on Durant. He shot 56.3 percent in the first half, but he finished 13-of-30 on the night.

Luckily Durant got one of the luckiest rolls in playoff history on his go-ahead three-pointer that bounced on the rim for a few seconds. If that shot with 18.5 seconds left in the game hadn't fallen, the Thunder could be looking at a 2-1 series right now.

As a team, the Thunder shot 37.9 percent from the field. If you take out Durant's shooting performance, the team shot a measly 20-of-57 from the floor.

Luckily, that still managed to cut it against a Rockets team who couldn't find the bottom of the basket early on. But if the Rockets had shot the ball early like they did all regular season, the Thunder might've been on the opposite end of that 26-point lead.

Assuming the Thunder make it past the Rockets, they will be looking at a second-round matchup with the winner of the series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Will hero ball work against those teams? Absolutely not, and the first reason why is because both of those teams actually play defense. 

The Rockets are the worst statistical defense in the NBA, and they showed it on Saturday night. The same can't be said for the Clippers or the Grizzlies. If Durant's jumper isn't falling against Lob City or the Grizz, there's no way that guys like Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin will be getting the open looks they are getting against the Rockets.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Another reason why hero ball will mean an early exit for the Thunder is because Durant simply isn't prepared to be that kind of player.

There's a difference between being clutch, which he absolutely is, and being capable of playing hero ball. At the foundation of that difference is having a physicality off the dribble and around the rim. While that is a part of Durant's game, more of his success lies within his ability to hit mid-to-long-range jumpers.

Durant has an explosive first step and can certainly finish above the rim, but as we saw with a number of misses around the rim late in the game, his light frame doesn't cut it against physical defenders.

If he had to play that way for only 35-37 minutes of a game, it would be a different story. But for the Thunder to win, they need him to be capable of playing strong off the dribble and at the rim for 45 minutes of every game.

The playoffs are a different beast in terms of physicality, and that wear and tear is going to take a toll on Durant's 6'9'', 235-pound frame. 

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's the same thing that happened to LeBron James when he was in Cleveland. Hero ball only works for so long when you don't have star-caliber talent beside you, and it certainly takes its toll on your physical abilities and psyche. 

I'm sure the Thunder are wishing that James Harden wasn't wearing a Rockets jersey right now, because Durant and Co. could certainly use his help. 

Either way, if Kevin Durant is truly "tired of being second," this is the perfect chance for him to rise to the occasion and be the hero.

This is the opportunity Durant asked for. Now it just depends on how much weight his shoulders can carry and how far he can carry that weight.

Next up for Durant and the Thunder's new hero-ball approach is Game 4 against the Rockets on Monday night in Houston.

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