Thunder Win Game 3, but Is OKC Relying Too Heavily on MVP Kevin Durant?

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Thunder Win Game 3, but Is OKC Relying Too Heavily on MVP Kevin Durant?
Noah Graham/Getty Images

With each extra minute Kevin Durant plays, Scott Brooks comes closer to forcing his team's successful outings to transition into the category of pyrrhic victories. 

Friday night gave basketball fans around the world yet another example, as the Oklahoma City Thunder took a 2-1 series lead by stealing Game 3 from the Los Angeles Clippers with a 118-112 performance at the Staples Center. 

Durant, as you might expect, was fantastic yet again. 

The newly minted MVP continues to look like an unstoppable force on offense as he helped his Thunder become the first team in 36 tries to knock off LAC on its home court while trailing at the end of the third quarter. His shot was falling throughout the game, but—much as was the case throughout the regular season—he contributed in so many other areas as well. 

It's not all well and good for the Thunder, though. 

While it's easy to take nothing but positives away from a lead-gaining victory on the road against such a difficult opponent, OKC has to be concerned about the excessive workload that Brooks is forcing Durant to endure. 

After all, this team is chasing a championship, not just a berth in the Western Conference Finals. 

 

Continued Excellence from Durant

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Durant wasn't just great during Game 3; he was on a level above that. 

His final line doesn't even give enough credit to his excellence, despite the jaw-dropping nature of the numbers it contains—a game-high 36 points, eight rebounds, six assists and one block on 14-of-24 shooting from the field and a perfect 7-of-7 at the charity stripe. 

That's to say nothing of the attention he drew from the Clippers defense, which opened things up for Russell Westbrook's aggressive play. It also overlooks the difficulty of some of his attempts, like the turnaround jumper he hit late in the fourth quarter from the right wing. 

It's that shot that led to reactions like these: 

And this was nothing new for KD.

In fact, it was just the latest in a trend of incredible outings, as Durant has put the "Mr. Unreliable" headline he "earned" against the Memphis Grizzlies in the distant past. 

Here's what he's done against Los Angeles thus far: 

Durant Torching the Clippers
Points Rebounds Assists Shooting
Game 1 25 4 4 9-of-19
Game 2 32 12 9 10-of-22
Game 3 36 8 6 14-of-24

ESPN game logs

That's dominance. MVP-caliber dominance, in fact. 

Durant has consistently taken advantage of the fact that he's a complete matchup nightmare for Los Angeles. Doc Rivers is being forced to try guarding him with Matt Barnes (which works in small doses), Blake Griffin (even less effective) and constant switches (which compromises the entire defense). 

It's exactly what the MVP needs to be doing. But Brooks has become far too reliant on his team's best player, and that might come back to bite the Thunder down the road, even if it hasn't done so thus far.  

 

Victory, but at What Cost? 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

There's one bad number in the Durantula's box score from Friday night: 46. 

That would be how many minutes he spent on the floor, as Brooks only allowed him to take a seat for two minutes when the clock was running. And somewhat scarily, that was just slightly above his average playing time during this postseason run. 

Heading into Game 3, KD was averaging 44.7 minutes per contest, which led the entire postseason field by nearly a minute. James Harden (43.8), Jimmy Butler (43.6) and Damian Lillard (43.3) were the only other players above 43 minutes per game.

Notice what they have in common?

With the exception of Lillard, whose team seems likely to be eliminated rather soon by the San Antonio Spurs, they've all been knocked out of the playoffs already. Durant has been the exception, not the rule.

And on top of that, he's not exactly taking it easy.

Let's look past the heavy scoring and playmaking responsibilities he shoulders night in and night out. Let's overlook the fact that he's increasingly involved in shutting down opponents on the other end of the court.

If we boil basketball down to its most fundamental element, motion, Durant still stands out as a ridiculously overworked player.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

According to NBA.com's SportVU data, no player in the postseason has traveled as far as Durant during in-game proceedings. Even before he logged 46 intense minutes in Game 3, the MVP had run, walked and jogged 25.4 miles throughout the postseason. Paul George (25 miles flat) was the only other player a quarter of the way to triple digits. 

Even playing spurts at power forward, which requires less movement around the perimeter, hasn't been able to make up for his workload and inordinately high number of minutes. 

And this comes on the heels of becoming one of just six players to travel over 200 miles during the regular season: 

  1. Nicolas Batum, 216.0
  2. Monta Ellis, 208.3
  3. Damian Lillard, 207.5
  4. Paul George, 203.9
  5. Kevin Durant, 202.6
  6. DeMar DeRozan, 202.6

Durant has always taken on a heavy burden, but this is pushing things to a new level, especially during a year in which he was forced to make up for Westbrook's occasional injury-related absences.

This go-round, he led the league in minutes played for the third time. That's nothing new. It's also not the first time he's played over 40 minutes per game during the postseason. However, the 44.7 minutes per game he's averaged are a new career high. 

And unfortunately, there's not much precedent for teams winning a title with this type of output required from a star player. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, a player has averaged at least 45 minutes per game during the playoffs on 104 separate occasions. Durant, who's up to 44.8 after this latest outing, is perilously close to joining the list. 

Any guess when the last time one of these players won a title was? 

Anonymous/Associated Press

It came all the way back in the 1970s, when John Havlicek suited up for 45.1 minutes per game and helped lead the Boston Celtics to the 1974 title. Before that, it was Wilt Chamberlain on the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers

That's the type of history Durant is trying to buck. Well, not so much Durant as Brooks, who is keeping his superstar on the court in every situation imaginable. Depth and the MVP's sheer level of talent are forcing his hand, but he's still playing it. 

Remember, the Thunder aren't just trying to advance deep into the postseason. This is a season in which anything less than a championship will undoubtedly be considered a failure, and OKC is caught between a rock and a hard place.

On one hand, the Thunder absolutely need to milk every possible bit of value out of their best player. They have to win games, after all. But on the other hand, they're dooming themselves if they wear out Durant before he has a chance to eliminate the Miami Heat a team from the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Are the Thunder asking too much of Durant?

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Remember, we're only in the second round of the playoffs, and the San Antonio Spurs will probably be waiting in the next round.

As Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey wrote after the Friday night contest, "It's fair to wonder if this heavy responsibility will start to take a toll on Durant, but OKC really has no choice but to play this way."  

It will indeed take a toll on the MVP, and it's up to Brooks to strike a balance. 

While OKC fans can rejoice in a tough and important Game 3 victory over the Clippers, that's exactly why they shouldn't get too excited quite yet. 

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