Have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook Taken Thunder as Far as They Can Go?

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Have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook Taken Thunder as Far as They Can Go?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Hidden beneath the Serge Ibaka excuses and calls for Scott Brooks' head, there's a disconcerting thought plaguing the imaginations of Oklahoma City Thunder fans.

Are our best days already behind us?

The mere suggestion borders on heresy. This team is as young as it is talented, all but guaranteed to remain a force so long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to headline. It's proven itself capable of reaching the conference finals without James Harden. It's proven it's still one of the two best clubs in a crowded Western Conference.

But it hasn't proven title-worthy—not yet.

The eternal optimist believes the time simply hasn't come yet. It might have been this season had Serge Ibaka's leg not gotten dinged up. And if he makes a heroic return, maybe this is the season after all. Maybe the Thunder can do to San Antonio what they did in 2012, winning four straight after succumbing to a 2-0 series deficit.

The realist isn't so sure.

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There are serious problems endemic to the Thunder's brand of basketball. For every reason to love their talent and tenacity, there's an equally compelling reason to believe that those things are double-edged swords—that KD and Russ are too good for their own good, that their strengths are inextricably linked to their weaknesses.

On paper, it should take an army to stop Durant and Westbrook. Unfortunately for OKC, an army is exactly what stands before it.

The San Antonio Spurs are a deep, multifaceted, synergistic hydra of talent—an ensemble cast in which no single player is bigger than the team. This is a Spartan outfit in which each component understands his role. It takes pleasure in the process of being great. It sees results as an inevitable and almost incidental consequence of that process.

The Spurs are the NBA's version of the Borg—part man, part machine and deeply connected to one another via a hive mentality.

In contrast, the Thunder boast a top-heavy roster in which two clear-cut stars take the shots and most of the glory. The video game generation may have trouble understanding how such otherworldly talent could look mortal against a team led by a 38-year-old big man and a point guard who doesn't dunk.

The Thunder are learning the limitations of a two-man game. It's less about who those two men are and more about the dependency they engender. 

These are the kinds of problems great teams have, the kinds of problems most teams would love to have. But they're real all the same, and never more so than right now.

 

The Hero-Ball Complex

Blame Scott Brooks all you want, but what would you do if you had two guys like Durant and Westbrook around? Who among us would seriously tell the MVP and his very valuable sidekick that they need to pass the ball to Thabo Sefolosha more?

Please.

Sure, there are some fine complementary scorers on this team—namely Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher. But few would seriously argue that their shots should come at the expense of Durant and Westbrook's offense. Few would maintain that this team's shot distribution should undergo a radical overhaul.

But there are limits to this conventional wisdom. While Durant and Westbrook should take the lion's share of shots, they have to get those shots in the flow of an offense that shares the ball. 

That might not be easy for this team. Two of its starters—Sefolosha and center Kendrick Perkins—are defensive specialists. Butler and Fisher are capable of making baskets, but they're fundamentally spot-up shooters at this stage of their careers. So the Thunder run a very real risk of asking role players to do too much, to step out of their comfort zones and mess things up in the process. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that Durant will ask more of himself before asking more of his teammates. On Saturday, he told reporters, "I've got to do more. I've got to dig deeper and find out what it is and how I can help my team out a little bit more by having to do more, and I own up to everything."

It's hard to imagine Durant doing more, especially on the offensive end.

The same goes for Westbrook. Together, they took 40 field-goal attempts in Game 2, converting on just 13 of them. The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry wonders if Durant and Westbrook have stopped trusting in their teammates. He also noted Durant's denial of such a premise:

Asked why they stopped moving the ball Durant, displaying some of the best defense of the night, responded, 'We didn't.'

So how do you explain it?

A 17-minute stretch in which a one-point lead turned into a 27-point deficit? The Spurs storming to a 46-16 run while Durant and Westbrook used 27 of 38 possessions despite going 8-for-23 with four turnovers and only one assist?

'Because we're the focal point of the offense,' Durant said.

"Focal point" is certainly one way of putting it, and that cuts both ways. San Antonio knows where Oklahoma City's offense is coming from, and it's zeroing in accordingly.

That's one of the dangers of hero ball. It's predictable. 

It also saps the life out of all those role players. They become accustomed to standing around and watching the stars go to work. They grow complacent, assuming that Durant and Westbrook will bail them out as they've done so many times before.

Finally, hero ball prevents the supporting cast from developing any kind of rhythm. There's a reason Sefolosha was 0-of-9 from the field in Games 1 and 2. He doesn't see many attempts, robbing him of any meaningful ability to get into the flow of the game. 

And that's been the difference so far in this series. San Antonio shooting guard Danny Green made seven three-pointers in Game 2. He expects to shoot the ball. He knows his job when he finds himself open on the perimeter. He isn't worried about taking shots away from anyone. The Spurs' heroes are always unsung. They wouldn't have it any other way.

It may well be the case that Durant and Westbrook have to do more. But it can't come at the expense of a team concept. The most heroic thing they can do is insist on a more democratic offense. Without it, a title may remain just out of reach.

 

Defense Wins Championships

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Oklahoma City's regular-season defense was actually one of the league's best. Despite playing at a high tempo and turning the ball over too frequently, the Thunder ranked third leaguewide in opponent's field-goal percentage, limiting teams to an average of just 43.6 percent.

But so far in the conference finals, OKC has given up 122 and 112 points in Games 1 and 2.

Against the most elite offensive teams, the Thunder look out of their element on the defensive end. Whether helping too much on penetration or showing up late on rotations, Brooks' defense looks neither engaged nor energetic. It's not creating turnovers, and it's not getting stops.

Ibaka would help, but he's not the source of all these woes. This is about each man doing his part.

Including Durant.

As Oklahoma City's best player, it's incumbent upon KD to set a tone defensively. He can't lapse back into the mindset that once typified a younger Durant, the notion that he's really just a very talented scorer. Durant's lack of defensive focus at the highest level suggests he may not be the two-way player we thought he was.

He certainly wasn't in Game 2, admitting to reporters after the game that he made several missteps during a crucial second-quarter juncture:

I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter. I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I over-helped, and he got another 3. And then Ginobili hit a 3. All those plays was on me. It was my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. Wish they wouldn't have happened. I can't get them back now. But I'll take that one.

There's very little room for error at this level of the game, particularly on the defensive end and particularly against a high-IQ team such as the Spurs. San Antonio's ability to execute demands a commensurate willingness to do all the little things required on the defensive end.

Durant has the know-how and the physical tools, but he's not demonstrating the focus.

ESPN's J.A. Adande emphasized the need for Durant to use his length better after Game 1, writing: "Durant needs to use his long arms to be a disrupter. Extend those arms sideways to block passing lanes. Hold the hands high to distract shooters."

He also needs to be more physical, pushing shooters off their spots and denying space to San Antonio's wing shooters. 

It's all well and good to talk about the things Durant should be doing, but the point is really that he hasn't been doing them. His team now finds itself in a 2-0 hole in large part because of its collective defensive failings. Durant should have insisted on superior effort. He should have been the one telling teammates to "wake up."

This isn't a talent crisis. It's a crisis in leadership.

Fingers will point at Brooks, but they should also hold Durant accountable. If this team ever wins a championship, it will be because Durant evolved into something more than a Most Valuable Player. It will be because he became a leader on the defensive end.

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