MVP Favorite Kevin Durant Facing Major Pressure to Save OKC Thunder Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2014

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2014 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Burdens don't come much heavier than the load Kevin Durant is bearing now for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

One more loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Thunder are done, their season over, their championship quest foiled once again.

If and when the Thunder find themselves ousted in the first round, there will be no dearth of blame to go around. From coach Scott Brooks' antiquated and simplistic play-calling to Russell Westbrook's shot selection to Memphis' defense, fingers will be pointed everywhere, at everyone.

Among those complicit in Oklahoma City's collapse will be Durant. The body armor that protected him against conventional title-less criticism is gone. There is no escaping this task, no displacing pressure elsewhere.

Game 6 is on Durant. Game 7, if there is one, is on Durant. The Thunder will fight only as long and hard as he does. This series is his to win or lose, their season is his to salvage or forfeit.

 First-Round Woes

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 29: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Memphis Grizzlies. In Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Okl
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Under normal conditions, placing faith in Durant is reassuring. It's easy. Game, series or season on the line, there's no one else the Thunder would rather turn to. Not Westbrook, not Serge Ibaka, not the continuously surprising Reggie Jackson.

But Durant's postseason performance has been uneven thus far, inefficient and static to unfathomable degrees. 

In Oklahoma City's 100-99 loss in Game 5, Durant shot 10-of-24 from the floor. He was hot at times, but he struggled most of the way—which is nothing new.

Five games into this series, Durant is averaging 28 points, 9.8 rebounds, four assists and 1.8 blocks on 40 percent shooting. That's from a guy who registered 32 points and 5.5 assists on 50.3 percent shooting per game during the regular season, successfully redefining the relationship between volume and efficiency.

Durant has converted more than 50 percent of his shots just once in five games, and he's shot under 40 percent twice. His 5-of-21 showing in Game 4 was his worst shooting performance of the year through both the playoffs and regular season.

The Thunder are just 8-8, including playoffs, when he converts less than 40 percent of his shots, reducing outcomes to an essential coin toss. That can't happen. It shouldn't happen. This team won 59 games during the regular season riding Durant's economical scoring and shooting.

Now they're on the verge of going down in his fog of atypical passivity.

Trifling Acceptance

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 24: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder addresses the media after Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenne
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Let's be clear: Durant is still the wonderfully fantastic, offensively maniacal MVP favorite. His first-round strife doesn't alter or taint what he's done previously.

Right now, though, he's allowed himself to become marginalized on the offensive end, vanishing for possessions and half-quarters at a time. Part of this is because Tony Allen remains a defensive psychopath. Over the last seven years, Durant has rarely had to work so hard to create space and get the ball, let alone shoot and score.

At first, Durant was dismissive of Allen's impact. Then, leading into Game 5, he admitted that Allen was affecting both his game and his mental approach to said game, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst:

By his own admission, Kevin Durant has let Tony Allen into his head.

A few days ago, Durant became annoyed when it was suggested that Allen might be affecting him a little. The presumptive MVP defiantly said he was not being shut down. But some of the worst shooting games of his playoff career have brought some reflection and humility.

After that first step of acknowledging it, Durant is now trying to deal with it.


"I'm worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot," Durant said. "I've just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can't go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over."

There is only so much Durant can do about Allen, who fights over screens and denies the ball with unparalleled diligence and indescribable success. That Durant is thinking twice before he shoots is a credit to the diminutive shooting guard's defensive chops.

But let's not pretend Durant hasn't made life easier on Allen than it should be. He needs to be more aggressive.

You've heard this spiel before. You're going to hear it again. Then again. Then again still. Sometimes it won't be true. It will be overblown, manufactured out of boredom and want for something to talk about.

For now, it's unmistakably true.

When Durant's off the ball, he's not fighting like he needs to. Battling for position with Allen won't always be easy, but Durant has five to six inches on him. He has the size advantage against most of his opponents as an almost-7-footer who plays with the graceful explosion of a shooting guard.

Yet for most of this series, Durant hasn't used his natural-born gifts to his advantage. Allen's ball denial has been both sensational and too easy. Durant is halfheartedly jostling for position on the block or abandoning plays once Allen clears screens. There have even been times when he's standing still, off to the weak or strong side, behind the arc, doing nothing, like he's a common decoy.

Worse, his inaction is often by design.

“We had some plays where he has to space the floor,” Brooks said, per Daily Thunder's Royce Young. “We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities.”

If that's what passes for an offensive game plan during the playoffs in Oklahoma City, then Durant's current issues aren't on him alone. And they're not. 

The Durantula is not to be used as a dawdling distraction. Not ever. 

Brooks and the Grizzlies defense can only be held accountable for so much, though. Criticize Brooks for giving Durant the freedom that prompted him to launch a contested three-pointer with less than three seconds remaining in overtime of Game 5, but why is he taking that shot? Brooks cannot control his shot selection all the time. And make no mistake, Durant's shot selection has been questionable.

This is all assuming he's actually shooting. 

After drilling a go-ahead three midway through the fourth quarter, Durant wasn't a key part of Oklahoma City's offense down the stretch. When he should have had the ball, he didn't. Others did. The results, as Young points out, were predictably underwhelming:

Over the Thunder’s next 12 possessions, though, Durant didn’t take a single shot. In fact, by my count, he touched the ball a total of three times during those 12 possessions, which spanned exactly six minutes and 13 seconds. After hitting that 3, the next shot Durant took was with 33 seconds left, a rushed transition 3 that came up woefully short. And to stress the point, that was his first shot for more than six minutes, a stretch in which the Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 12-9.

Is that on Brooks too?

Most certainly, but only part of it. 

Those on the court need to recognize when Durant needs the ball. Durant himself needs to understand he cannot be a spectator when the game is on the line. 

There is no conceivable reason why Westbrook should be attempting nine shots in the fourth quarter to Durant's five. Unless the former is on fire, that's unacceptable. He wasn't on fire (3-of-9), so it's unacceptable.

Westbrook shouldn't be attempting more shots than Durantperiod. Not when he's shooting 10-of-31 from the floor overall, and 1-of-7 from deep. 

Enough with the "Let Westbrook be Westbrook" diatribes already. Seriously. He snatched a huge steal and followed that up with a game-tying bucket in transition to close out regulation in Game 5, but that doesn't erase everything else. Westbrook, the point guard, shouldn't be attempting more shots than Durant. 

And Durant shouldn't let him attempt that many shots.

Period (again).

This is the time of year when he should be calling for the ball, ripping it out of Westbrook's death grip if that's what it takes. There is no excuse—not Brooks' insufficient offensive setup, not Westbrook's innate need to shoot—for Durant relegating himself to bystander duty.

The Thunder's series, win or lose, is on him. So they must win or lose with the ball in his hands.

Take It Away, KD

Uncredited/Associated Press

Consider all of this a backhanded compliment.

The Thunder need Durant to take control, and he needs the same.

Falling to the Grizzlies may cost Brooks his job. It may mean Westbrook's detractors double in size and triple in delivery. It may even force the Thunder to explore drastic measures over the summer.

But it most definitely means Durant's absence of a championship will become more noticeable. 

Seven years will have gone by without him winning a ring. It will mark the second straight year Oklahoma City has fallen to Memphis, the second consecutive season this team failed to move beyond the second round. And if things don't change on the court, it will have all happened with Durant underperforming, with him disappearing at critical junctures.

"If I want the ball, I’ve got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break," Durant said, via Young. "I trust my teammates, whatever decisions they make and I’ve just got to be better for them.”

No, Kevin. If you want the ball, go get the ball. Take it. Make Westbrook put it in your hands. You're the only one who can save the Thunder now. You're the one under the most pressure. If you're going down, bow out swinging. 

Go out shooting.

Win or lose, leaving an imprint on this series that suggests you were more than just along for (another) thrilling, yet wildly disappointing ride.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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