The Oklahoma City Thunder's Tuesday night loss to the Dallas Mavericks didn't change anything in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a harsh reminder that the coming weeks won't get any easier for Kevin Durant and Co.
By now we know that Durant is historically good, in a league with a handful of scorers who were all but unguardable. We also know he'll win the 2013-14 MVP award and deservedly so. Not even LeBron James can snatch this one away.
But we know far less about how KD's individual performance will translate into collective success come the postseason. The only foregone conclusion about the Thunder's playoff hopes is that there is indeed reason to be hopeful. A healthier and deeper iteration of the 2012-13 squad could prove nearly unstoppable this time around.
Except for the fact that there are so many obstacles capable of stopping them, least of all a learned dependency on Durant himself. If there's such a thing as being too good, Durant may be the face of it. He's so good that teammates are inclined to stand around and watch, leaving him to win games in isolation—and lose games when isolation plays aren't enough.
That's the double-edged sword of greatness, and it's been exposed as the Thunder adjust to life wherein Durant is once again joined by point guard Russell Westbrook.
The only thing more tantalizingly dangerous than hero-ball is having an extra hero around, a second gifted scorer who does his best work when the ball stops moving.
Thunder fans will balk at the notion that their club suffers from any substantial vulnerability, and they'll eagerly point to the standings when doing so. Despite losing four of their last 10, the Thunder remain firmly entrenched as the second seed in the Western Conference.
They've even proven they can win without Westbrook in spite of persuasive arguments that he's the key to their postseason run.
Nevertheless, there are warning signs.
The Thunder have lost two of three games to both the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, while splitting their series with the Portland Trail Blazers at two games apiece. That's an important sampling of potential first- and second-round opponents, and it demonstrates something short of invincibility.
In those six losses, Scott Brooks' club gave up an average of 113.7 points.
That says a lot about the offensive firepower out West, but it also says something about the dangers of playing at OKC's pace. It's not that the Thunder have a bad defense—it's that they like to run with the best of them even when it gets the better of them.
Pace like that goes a long way in explaining why the Thunder rank 28th in turnovers. Much like the ball, games themselves can get out of control without the ability to settle down and execute half-court offense. Too often, OKC's version of said offense is expecting Durant or Westbrook to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
They frequently do just that.
But magic is of little guarantee in the postseason. The pace slows down and defenses stiffen up. Tolls taken by an 82-game season favor deep teams like the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. Individual heroics only go so far as their systems will take them—even when those heroics are of a Durant-like stature.
In OKC's most recent loss to Dallas, Durant put up a seemingly typical 43 points. Per the Associated Press, it was his 36th straight game with at least 25 points, "the longest such streak since Michael Jordan's 40-game run during the 1986-87 season."
Not even a week ago, it was Durant's 51 points that ensured a narrow overtime escape against the Toronto Raptors—who scored 118 points at Thunder-like breakneck tempo.
Even when Durant is at his best, OKC isn't coming by wins easily at the moment. Nor will it in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City's franchise player will need a little help from the rest of the franchise. Three things stand out.
First, Russell Westbrook has to be dynamic. It's not just about his scoring—it's about his ability to make a defensive impact and dictate tempo. If the Thunder struggle to survive in the half court, the best solution is to avoid half-court situations. Westbrook's ability to turn defense into offense is a key in that respect.
Second, Scott Brooks has to make small ball work. Guys like Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are defensively instrumental, but they're offensive liabilities. With teams out West capable of putting up 110 points with relative ease, the Thunder must be prepared to answer. That means maximizing minutes for Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler, and that's not going to happen if Brooks is committed to a traditional, balanced lineup.
Finally, Serge Ibaka can't disappear. His improved mid-range game is fine, but the Thunder really need him to be active on the offensive end, cutting to the basket and looking for offensive rebounds. Standing around at the top of the key can help floor spacing, but it can also become a crutch. OKC needs movement, and it needs it from its bigs as much as anyone else.
Whether that kind of help is enough depends as much on the competition as it does on anything the Thunder are doing. Some things are simply outside of their control.
But this much is certain—there will have to be more than just one hero for OKC. Good as Kevin Durant has been, he won't win the finals on his own.
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