Finally, we arrive at Kevin Durant, who received the LeBron James treatment for the first time in his career during the opening round of the 2014 playoffs.
After four straight subpar games against Memphis, The Oklahoman put the soon-to-be-crowned 2014 Most Valuable Player on blast. A Berry Tramel column ran with the headline "Mr. Unreliable," for which the paper later issued a formal apology.
In the column, Tramel wrote that the "mighty Memphis defense, led by [Tony] Allen, has knocked Durant from his moorings." Through five games, that wasn't an inaccurate assertion.
As CBS Sports' Matt Moore tweeted, Durant shot 46.7 percent from the floor with Allen on the bench during Games 1 through 5 but only 36.3 percent with Allen on the court. Seeing KD throw up brick after brick was disconcerting, to say the least, considering he shot 50.3 percent overall during the regular season. Worse yet, his aggressiveness left much to be desired, especially in the waning minutes of Game 5.
"Sometimes you've got to be a decoy out there, and I'm fine with that," Durant told reporters after OKC's Game 5 overtime loss. "Once the ball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive when I touch it. If I want the ball, I've got to go rebound it and create something."
Heading into Game 6, it appeared as though Durant's MVP coronation would be a morose affair—shades of Dirk Nowitzki's ceremony in 2007. Per Basketball Reference, KD had shot under 50 percent from the field in all seven of his career playoff games in Memphis, where Game 6 was held.
Durant didn't quite crack 50 percent in OKC's first win-or-go-home game, but 36 points on 23 shots did the trick anyway. Despite going 0-of-6 from three-point range, the Slim Reaper took a personal series-high 15 free-throw attempts that night, drilling all but one.
"For the first time all series, Durant was in that effortless, easy-chair scoring mode where it looks like he can't help but put points up," Royce Young of Daily Thunder wrote. "Whether it was the headline, the chatter, or the desperation of the circumstance, the Thunder needed a game from their MVP, and he provided."
After breaking out of his slump in Game 6, KD came home to the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena and eviscerated Memphis in the series-deciding Game 7. He coolly poured in 33 points on only 18 shots, drilling all five of his three-point attempts, and added eight rebounds, two assists and a block for good measure.
After Game 7, Durant told reporters the secret to his late-series success:
I got out of my own way. I was thinking too much, I was worried about what you guys were saying, I was worried about how many shots I was going to shoot throughout the game. I was thinking too much. The game of basketball is played on instincts. And I realized I started playing this game to have fun and I didn’t want to take the pure fun out of the game.
Durant getting out of his own way saved the Thunder's season. The Oklahoman should get its next motivation-inducing headline ready just in case the Clippers burst out to an early lead in the conference semifinals.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats and are current through Sunday, May 4. All contract info via Spotrac.com.