Kevin Durant needs to be careful.
He’s just 24 years old, but he is closing in on the same you-can’t-win-a-title treatment that once devoured LeBron James.
The pressure on the greats to win a title comes quicker than Russell Westbrook through the lane—or the loss of a superstar teammate.
No excuses, though. Back in April, Durant told Sports Illustrated that he’s “tired of being second.” It was a bold statement that provided insight into Durant's urgency.
But to be the greatest means overcoming the improbable, and right now, Durant isn’t doing that.
Outwardly, his per-game playoff averages of 31.8 points (47.6 percent shooting), 9.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists are epic. However, individual postseason numbers never overshadow wins and losses. Without Westbrook, the Thunder have only gone 3-5.
The most important element in winning? The ability to close games.
Durant has caved when it matters. He was just 2-of-13 combined in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Thunder's Game 4 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He missed two free throws in the final minute of the Thunder's close Game 3 loss.
He opened the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals with strong finishes, but the last two games—both losses—have been ugly. Here are the figures of his fourth quarters in the series versus Memphis:
|Game 1 (W)||6-of-9||67%||12 points|
|Game 2 (L)||4-of-7||57%||10 points|
|Game 3 (L)||1-of-4||25%||2 points|
|Game 4 + OT (L)||2-of-13||15%||5 points|
The thing is, no one is going to remember those first two games. No one is going to remember the layup that Durant finished to send Game 4 to overtime or the game-winning shot in Game 1, either.
No, the narrative of how a player responds to pressure shifts dramatically in playoff letdowns—even though Durant was one of the more clutch scorers of the regular season.
However, the numbers don't tell the entire story. Durant shot just 39.2 percent in that clutch window, down from his 51 percent overall in the regular season.
It's certainly tougher to score in the final moments, but the drop-off is more significant than that of fellow superstars. In comparison, LeBron James shot 44.2 percent, Chris Paul shot 49.2 percent and Bryant shot 42.6 percent.
Durant's ineffectiveness in the fourth quarter has cost the Thunder in two consecutive games, and it's not Westbrook's fault.
Of course, Westbrook would help. Those fourth quarters might not be close if he was healthy, but that doesn't matter now.
Durant wants to be the man, and he is missing the opportunity. That urgency he felt when he told Sports Illustrated he was done being second isn't being delivered upon.
If you want to talk about Bryant's inability to win without Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol, or James' inability to win before Dwyane Wade, well, add Durant to that conversation. He's clearly not capable of doing it without Westbrook.
The brief time Oklahoma City has had to adjust to the loss of Westbrook has zero effect on the missed shots late in games.
He's still young and he isn't there yet, but the window for a title can shut quickly. Anything can happen, just as it did this season with the injury to Westbrook.
Remember how quickly James earned the can't-win sticker for not hitting clutch shots for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
The talent that surrounded James in Cleveland is similar to the Thunder's talent without Westbrook. James faced plenty of double-teams, played heavy minutes and was undoubtedly tired late in games.
Durant doesn't deserve a free pass just because he's nicer to the media.
Be careful, KD. This is how the storyline begins to develop. What began as a story of a young superstar advancing to the NBA Finals ahead of his time could quickly derail.
And if this happens again next season?
Even the briefest moments of postseason disappointment can haunt you for many, many years.
It might not happen right away, but soon the swell of support will turn and Durant will become the next target—just as it happened to James.
Nightmares happen sooner than you think.