Kevin Durant had solidified his superstar status long before the start of the 2013-14 season, but his 82-game trek to the top of the MVP ladder made the 25-year-old perhaps the hottest commodity on the NBA stock market.
Life at this end of the food chain isn't easy, though. Greatness is no longer celebrated—anything less than elite production sparks an uproar from the crowd of critics:
Internal pressures weigh even heavier than any outside noise.
Possessing superhuman skills is one thing, but knowing the strength of those powers is something entirely different. That's when good enough no longer becomes, well, good enough:
By his standards, Durant was far from magical in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 104-84 drubbing of the Memphis Grizzlies Thursday night. He shot below 50 percent from the field (11-of-23, 47.8), tossed out just two assists (well below his season average of 5.5) and misfired on all six of his attempts from distance.
Under any other metric, though, he was nothing short of spectacular. Backed against the ropes in a win-or-go-home scenario, KD delivered 36 points, 10 rebounds and posted a game-high plus-27 point differential in his 42 minutes of work.
Background commotion isn't always easily noticeable at center stage, but the magnitude of the moment was impossible to overstate.
OKC needed a gem, and he brought his own shovel to go digging for diamonds. Sweat equity poured into unearthing that stone, a flawed piece whose beauty came not from its brilliance but the special conditions surrounding its discovery.
"Considering all the surrounding circumstances and dramatic build up, it was a big-time, gutty showing when his team needed it most," Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman wrote. "Brink of elimination, pressure on and he was engaged from the tip."
As much as we tried to force the narrative, this was not a response to that hammer-dropping headline writer.
Ben Golliver of SI.com noted that this was embracing a challenge brought upon and answered by himself:
"He's self-motivated," Thunder coach Scott Brooks told CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish. "He's a tremendous kid who does everything for his team, for our organization. ... He gives everything he has."
That is Durant's test from this point forward: giving his all and leaving nothing to chance.
The rim has never looked smaller for the four-time scoring champ. Memphis' grit-and-grind defense, led by Tony Allen's lack of respect for personal space, has forced that optical illusion on Durant.
He's still getting buckets, but efficiency couldn't secure a ticket to this first-round clash.
|Grizzlies' Impact on KD's Shooting|
With Allen on his hip and another defender—or two or three—always in the vicinity, Durant has had to work for every entry on the stat sheet.
Averaging an absurd 47 minutes of floor time—four of the six games have went into overtime—there are only so many times his body will allow him to wage those wars:
He'll have to find more reserve fuel on his own. Rest simply isn't an option at this point. NBA.com indicates that the Thunder have found some comfort when he's on the floor (plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions) and doubt when he exits (plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions).
The Grizzlies are forcing him to make decisions on every catch.
With Russell Westbrook struggling (35.6 percent shooting) and the supporting cast too often fading out of the spotlight—Serge Ibaka ranks third in scoring with 13.2 points a night—OKC needs Durant to make the right call every single time.
That's far easier said than done.
"It's hard for someone like him," Caron Butler told Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. "He has so much responsibility here. He's got to figure out every game, 'Should I look for my own offense? Should I get other guys going?'"
The reads will only get harder from here.
The Grizzlies will do everything they can to make someone else beat them in Saturday's Game 7 (8 p.m. ET on TNT). Between Allen's ball denial and the rest of the team's support, Durant will be on constant watch throughout his run.
Not to spin a broken record here, but that's also far easier said than done:
Past success won't make this present challenge any easier, though. Too many bad reads, and OKC's championship race could be over in an instant.
In a superstars league, it's players like Durant feeling the most pressure to perform. If he fails to rise to the occasion—even if that failure is tied to a masterful defensive effort by Memphis—he'll fall the hardest as a result.
The MVP award he locked up months ago will be meaningless. LeBron James' throne will remain unchallenged. Brooks could wind up looking for work. General manager Sam Presti's roster could be put under the microscope.
Durant's championship clock is ticking.
The logic is flawed, but individual stars are defined by team success. With a clean bill of health and an elite-level arsenal of talent, this team should be factoring in title talks, not wobbling in a first-round matchup.
Fair or not, KD will be graded harshly on this test.
"The pressure on Durant appears to be mounting," Scott Cacciola of The New York Times wrote. "The expectation at this stage of his career is that he should be vying for championships. Instead, the Thunder, who are healthy for a change, are fighting to escape the first round."
In a playoff field where No. 1 seeds are a combined 6-5, it's Durant's second-seeded Thunder who find themselves under the gun.
Last season's stumble in the conference semifinals was forgiven due to Westbrook's injury, but there are no excuses this time around.
Old reliable needs to act the part.
Durant is easily the best player in this series and the most talented one on this side of the bracket. That standing has its perks, but it also puts the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders.
Win or lose, that top-shelf status is safe. If he wants to remembered as an all-time great, though, he'll have to prove that no lights are too bright to derail him from this historical path.
He's either 48 minutes from validating that soaring stock or seeing it crumble. He'll decide what happens next.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.