What Kevin Durant Can Learn from 2013 Conference Finals
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James is one win away from the NBA Finals, but he is also one loss away from his season ending. The Pacers are keeping even with Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals by using their size, defense, strength and roster versatility to give the Heat enormous problems.
James has dominated every night in Miami's series against Indiana. He's played like the top-10-of-all-time talent he is. But it hasn't been enough.
Durant is no James and didn't play to quite the same level in Round 2, but he was still the best player on the court in just about every game. Still, his Thunder were thoroughly beaten by Memphis, as they simply didn't have the size, secondary scoring or efficiency to beat the Grizzlies.
It would then stand to reason that the first lesson for Durant to take away from the Conference Finals (we'll assume he's watching them) is this: It wasn't his fault that his team lost.
As much as we like to think of the NBA as a superstar league in which the best players prevail in the end, this is only true when the best players are part of an equally great unit.
LeBron James gets the bulk of the credit for Miami's championship last season, but that title would've never been won without brilliant play from Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, superb coaching by Erik Spoelstra and, ultimately, lesser opponents.
Kevin Durant has been viewed as the driving force of the Thunder ever since the team moved to Oklahoma City. Right alongside him, however, was Russell Westbrook, who is also widely considered to be one of the top 10 players in the NBA.
Over the past four seasons, the Thunder have gone 212-100 during the regular season and 24-19 in the playoffs (not including this year's postseason). After Westbrook got hurt during Game 2 of the 2013 playoffs, the Thunder went 3-6 and were sent home earlier than they had been in three years.
The Heat are not missing any core players right now, but the subpar performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have hurt Miami significantly. Their weak performances are partially due to physical ailments but have a lot to do with the Indiana Pacers as well.
Indiana was both the top-ranked defensive team and rebounding team in the NBA this season. The Memphis Grizzlies were No. 2 in both of these categories. The Thunder had the league's No. 2 offense, while Miami was No. 1 in the NBA offensively.
With Westbrook out, OKC's offense was hurting. But Miami's struggles with the Pacers while healthy suggest that going into next season thinking that Westbrook's return will be all his team needs would be a mistake on Kevin Durant's part.
Even if Westbrook had made the difference and gotten the Thunder into the Western Conference Finals, they would have met the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs swept the team that nearly swept the Thunder this season.
One look at San Antonio and you'll see what a truly great NBA franchise is made of. The Spurs have the Hall of Fame talent (Tony Parker, Tim Duncan), the excellent role players (Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter) and the all-time great coach (Gregg Popovich).
This season, they have also drawn the right matchups.
The Spurs earned the No. 2 seed and thus earned their right to play a less-than-stellar team in Round 1. However, there were at least two teams in the Western Conference who would have given San Antonio more of a challenge despite finishing with worse records than the Los Angeles Lakers.
Due to the Lakers' lack of depth, terrible defense and injury-depleted lineup, the Spurs cruised to Round 2 in four easy games. This left them fresh, healthy and prepared to take on the Golden State Warriors.
Golden State earned its way to Round 2 by decisively beating the Denver Nuggets in Round 1, but the fact was that the Warriors were still a No. 6 seed, still incredibly inexperienced and, again, dealing with injuries to several key players.
The Spurs beat the Warriors in six games.
The Spurs lost to Durant and the Thunder in last year's Conference Finals and may have done so again had OKC faced them again with a healthy roster. Instead, they drew a Memphis team that had no chance at penetrating San Antonio's defense and no way of stopping Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
While Kevin Durant may have dreams of being the next Michael Jordan—leading his team to multiple championships by being the most unstoppable scoring force in the world, coming through in the clutch and making his teammates better—this season's NBA Conference Finals should provide him with a reminder: There's so much more involved.
Even Jordan, the athlete most synonymous with success, winning, championships and greatness in the modern sports world, had a ton of help. He had Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant and Phil Jackson.
The NBA Championship goes to the best team in the NBA. Even if that team has the league's best player (like Miami last season), they are no more a one-man show than the teams that appear to win by committee (like the Dallas Mavericks a season before).
Kevin Durant can watch this years Conference Finals and NBA Finals and learn many things. He can watch how Tony Parker broke down the Grizzlies defense and try to emulate him next season. He can watch how aggressively LeBron has taken the ball to the rim against Indiana's daunting frontcourt and come back even more aggressive next year.
He can watch how Paul George, even as his team's offensive star and best player, has trusted his defense, teammates and coach to the point where he's not forcing anything, and thus has the energy and poise to finish games strong.
All of these lessons could benefit Durant, and if he works hard this summer and uses his early exit as motivation, there's no reason to believe that he couldn't return next season better and more locked-in than ever.
But the true lesson of this year's Conference Finals has been that, despite this being the age of freak athleticism—and Durant is certainly exhibit A—the NBA is still a basketball league, and basketball is still all about defense, rebounding, teamwork and efficiency.
Perhaps this kind of perspective will humble Durant; perhaps he'll no longer say he's "tired of being second" and focus more on finding new ways to help his team win and less on whether or not people think he's as good as LeBron.
Because while Oklahoma City wouldn't be the team they are without Durant, neither would Memphis have knocked them out without Zach Randolph, nor would Indiana be a win away from the finals without Roy Hibbert, nor would the Spurs be securely in the finals without Tony Parker.
In that sense, the NBA is a league full of superstars. Being a great player is only a prerequisite to winning, actually doing so takes so much more.
If Kevin Durant can learn that during the remainder of this postseason, he'll at least head into the offseason with some peace of mind, which is all any player who falls short of a title can ever hope for.
Well, that, health and some roster upgrades.
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