When the Thunder were down three games to two and facing a win-or-go-home game in Memphis, the natives started getting reckless. Durant was shooting just .400 from the field for the series at that point. It looked like they might be sent home for the second year in a row by the same opponent.
The Oklahoman called him “Mr. Unreliable” in a headline. The difference between a star being called out in a large and small market became rapidly apparent as the backlash against the paper almost immediately surpassed the disparagement of Durant.
It was severe enough that it called for the paper's sports editor, Mike Sherman, to issue this apology:
The words were overstated and unduly harsh. The headline and presentation left the impression that we were commenting on Durant’s season, career or even character. We were not. We were referring only to the Memphis series.
The fact the headline and presentation left that impression with so many readers is proof that we failed.
Darnell Mayberry, beat writer for The Oklahoman, revealed via Twitter, that ironically, Durant himself was one of the few people who didn't have a problem with the header.
Durant on The Oklahoman's headline: "That's what they're supposed to write. I didn't come through for the team."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 1, 2014
And the truth of the matter is, in the context of the Grizzlies series, the criticism was fair.
How much has Durant fallen off from his regular-season pace? If, as expected, he wins MVP, his current postseason falloff in player efficiency rating (PER) is the worst by the award's recipient in history.
Here are the 10 sharpest declines for comparison:
For the record, at the time of The Oklahoman’s headline, things were even worse. Durant’s PER was just 18.4, and the Grizzlies were one game away from sending the Thunder home without winning a series. That postseason PER would have been the third-lowest in history by a reigning MVP.
Durant’s is still among the lowest, but sensational performances in the last two games have him climbing the rankings a bit.
Durant hardly fares well here, even with the last two games helping.
Being fair, it’s a small sample size in which he was guarded by one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, Tony Allen. Still, people don’t generally make excuses for others' postseason collapses.
Notice how he’s tied with Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, arguably the most criticized MVP for his postseason performance in NBA history. Of course, Larry Bird, whose Boston Celtics went to the finals, and Bill Russell, whose Celtics won there, also had the same PER.
Bob Cousy and Willis Reed, who had two of the three worst MVP performances in the playoffs, also won the title. Reed even won Finals MVP. So, maybe too much gets made of such things.
The other side of this shows an equally intriguing story. Here are the MVPs who lifted their PER the most in the playoffs.
And here are the top PERs by MVPs in playoff history:
Michael Jordan won the title in 1991, Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, LeBron James in 2012 and Tim Duncan in 2002. All but Duncan also won the Finals MVP. Clearly, MVPs who do even better in the playoffs help carry their teams to titles.
That's not the whole story, though. James’ 2009 performance is the second highest, yet it is widely regarded as a postseason failure since his Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t make it to the finals. His 2010 postseason, eighth best, is the one where he was scorned for “quitting” on his team (via ESPN.com).
This presents an interesting paradox. Reed’s 1970 performance is regarded, literally, as one of the greatest in NBA history. By that I mean the NBA officially counts it as one of their greatest moments.
That’s, in part, because he inspired his New York Knicks to a championship. Quoting the NBA page on the moment:
"I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man," said Knicks guard Walt Frazier. "When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!"
Reed lined up against Chamberlain for the opening tap and scored the Knicks' first two baskets of the game. Those would prove to be his only points, but his presence was more than enough to inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 victory and the franchise's first NBA Championship. Overshadowed by Reed's emotion-charged effort was one of the great playoff performances in NBA history by Frazier, who led the Knicks with 36 points and 19 assists.
Looking at the numbers, Reed’s legendary 1970 performance doesn't compare well with James’ “collapse” in 2010.
Yet Reed’s is considered one of the greatest, and James’ is one of the most scorned.
In part, that’s because Reed’s performance is a story of effort, while James' is perceived to be a lack of it. Reed tried; James quit. But that line of reasoning only works because of the results: Reed won; James lost.
Ultimately, postseasons are judged more for how far you got than how well you played.
The Oklahoman was fair in calling Durant “Mr. Unreliable,” not just because he was struggling, but also because the Thunder were on the precipice of elimination.
When it mattered the most, though, Durant dug deep and found his inner MVP.
In the two closeout games, Durant averaged 34.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. He shot .561 from the field, .455 from three and .857 from the free-throw line. Most impressively, in the two games combined, the Thunder outscored the Grizzlies by 47 points while Durant was on the court.
That’s what we call “reliable,” and it’s why the Thunder won.
Performances like that will keep his team advancing, and that is the most important part of the formula. Ultimately, Durant's reliability won’t be measured by his PER, but by how close the Thunder come to winning their 16th playoff game of the season.