Kevin Durant Faces Colossal Challenge Carrying Thunder vs. Spurs in WCF

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMay 20, 2014

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SAN ANTONIO — Kevin Durant sat in the middle of the AT&T Center scorer's table before a fourth-quarter timeout ended Monday night, all of his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates still over by the bench.

It was a rare moment of clear separation for Durant, the guy who gave the most team-oriented speech ever in accepting an individual award.

Durant isn't just all-NBA, he's all-inclusive. At that moment, however, he seemed awfully comfortable being alone, perhaps because he felt so alone.

The Thunder lost Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, 122-105, and without injured defensive anchor Serge Ibaka, Durant looked a lot like solo superstars all over the NBA who put up big individual numbers but can't fathom how to beat the best team.

So Durant sat quietly on the scorer's table and watched the Spurs' coyote mascot bring a group together.

The Spurs' players had already revved the crowd up with a 106-93 lead, the last play before the timeout featuring Durant hunched over in pain after an ill-advised, desperately awkward attempt to body-check Kawhi Leonard before he turned Russell Westbrook's turnover into a layup. It wasn't the only time Durant had to shake off physical pain or mental frustration on this night.

But for a third-quarter stretch fueled by Westbrook's transition offense, the Thunder weren't a threat in Game 1. San Antonio's fans seemed more united behind the "S-P-U-R-S" chant led by the "The Coyote" than in response to any real challenge to the final score. A spirited "greeting" for longtime ex-Los Angeles Laker Derek Fisher—the unwelcoming lasted a full five seconds late in the first quarter—and attempts to get a wave from San Antonio native Shaquille O’Neal at TNT's makeshift set halfway up the stands drew greater attention at times than the game itself.

So after watching San Antonio's big-eyed, big-eared, brown furry stupid thing do his whole shtick once … and twice, Durant saw his Thunder fall into the same dispiriting pattern it had most of the night. Westbrook missed a shot, Tim Duncan rebounded, Tony Parker assisted and Manu Ginobili scored.

Soon enough, the final horn sounded, and Durant, accepting the lost cause before anyone else, was the first player off the court, pulling his shirt tail and marching in the tunnel on the way to the locker room.

"We've got to continue to trust," Durant said later as he tried to make sense of a blowout loss on a night when he scored 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

Durant said it over and over: "We've got to continue to trust—no matter if guys are hitting shots or not."

There are moments in sports when the right answers are wrong.

They are the right spirit, the right message, the right dream, but if they just aren't going to work, they're wrong.

There is no known answer for Durant and the Thunder, trust or not. Ibaka has missed only three games in the past four seasons, and this is uncharted territory. Beyond that, as Durant and coach Scott Brooks made very plain in their public comments last round, Ibaka, 24, is better than ever.

The Spurs are rather aware of this, too.

"That's what we were really focusing on," San Antonio's Boris Diaw said, "knowing that Serge Ibaka was not in there. A team that is not in the paint is a lot different than a team that focuses on securing the paint."

Ibaka connects a Thunder defense that is the backbone of this team more than anyone really comprehends. His job on offense is also uniquely unifying: He drills demoralizing open jumpers when the opposing defense can rotate only as far as Durant or Westbrook.

Now there is a lack of depth, and of course, there is to some extent with Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha exposing their limitations when trying to extend themselves and each be the third-best Thunder starter in Ibaka's place.

More than lack of depth, though, it's lack of team—because all of a sudden OKC's defensive confidence and overall connectivity has been zapped. Of San Antonio’s 67 first-half points, 40 came in the paint.

"It’s not really about one individual," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's about how a team performs."

In this case, take one Ibaka away, and the team you're left with isn't a team. That's the way it goes when you're a budget-conscious market: The Thunder built a team around three guys each making $12 million-plus, and now they have two.

Westbrook can be a dynamo, but it's hard to imagine that being enough help for Durant. Plus, this is Westbrook we’re talking about—a different cat, happy to go it alone, the guy who stands deliberately apart from the team's final pre-tip huddle with one fully extended arm on someone's shoulder, his entire body and mind far outside the group.

Durant wants deeply to win it together. But on Monday night he committed six turnovers, a typical ugly number for a superstar forcing the action—even uglier when you realize he shot merely four free throws despite all his aggressiveness.

The frustration was evident in a technical foul committed early in the fourth quarter with Oklahoma City down by seven points, the tech coming after a Durant foul on defense but triggered by no call on Durant while on offense on the previous play.

It was even more obvious in another sequence a few minutes later—with Durant driving, swarmed by three Spurs, and dropping off a pass that was stolen by a fourth Spur because Thunder rookie Steven Adams didn't cut to the basket. The sequence was repeated on the very next play, albeit with a different ending when Parker passed to a cutting Danny Green for an uncontested layup.

And so the NBA MVP looked and felt very alone.

"No matter who we put on the floor," Brooks said, "they have to be able to compete against this team."

Again, right idea … but not a real answer.

This has already become the year Durant gets to shake his hang-up with being No. 2: second-best player in high school, second pick in the draft, second in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Durant is the MVP now. He is No. 1 there. It's a done deal.

But it can be even lonelier at the top.


Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.