After having his potential game-tying shot blocked by LeBron James in the waning seconds Saturday night in Cleveland — 24 hours after missing a potential game-winning, 3-pointer in Memphis — The Oklahoman’s live blog drew some “Durant isn’t clutch” comments.
Hard to argue with that viewpoint at this stage of Durant’s career.
But that point of view minimizes the progress Durant and the league’s second youngest team has made in roughly 12 months.
Frustration is understandable. Players are frustrated. How can you not be frustrated when you lose 1-point games to the Spurs, Mavericks and Cavs, and a 2-point decision to Memphis in a 10-day span.
But here are two things to consider:
(1) OKC is 7-10 in one-possession games. If you’re going to criticize Durant and the Thunder for coming up short give them credit for winning down-to-the-wire games against Phoenix, Atlanta, Utah and a road game at San Antonio.
(2) Expectations have risen too quickly. Most pre-season predictions projected the Thunder to win around 35 games which means OKC was projected to be around 18-26 at this point of the season, already out of the playoff race.
Durant is 21. At the same age, Michael Jordan was a junior at North Carolina; Kobe Bryant was averaging 19.9 points with the Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki was averaging 8.2 points, and LeBron James was leading the Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time in his third season.
Here’s a sobering stat to rachet down expectations the final three months:
The nine players in the Thunder’s rotation have played in a combined 35 playoff games — Nenad Krstic 15, Nick Collison 11, Thabo Sefolosha 9. Three rookies obviously haven’t played in post-season. Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Durant are hoping to crash the post-season party this season.
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have played in a combined 389 playoff games.
Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry have played in a combined 267 playoff games.
LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal have played in a combined 263 playoff games.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett have played in a combined 227 playoff games.
Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony have played in a combined 172 playoff games.
Yes, it’s frustrating Durant still hasn’t found the late-game magic touch. Yes, it’s frustrating the Thunder continually comes up just short against elite teams. Yes, it’s frustrating these losses might cost the Thunder a playoff berth.
But to expect the league’s second youngest team to consistently beat playoff-tested opponents is unrealistic. I predicted 36 wins in preseason. As we near the All-Star break, my adusted win projection is 47 wins, which probably would get OKC in the playoffs.
Even if they fall short, and finish around.500, a vastly improved defense and road wins at Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah and Miami are signs this is just the beginning. If the Thunder’s story were a book we’re only in chapters 4 or 5, far from reaching the juicy part of the plot, hundreds of pages away from the ending.
Some understably will respond. “I understand all that. But when will Durant hit the big shot? When will the Thunder win these type of games?” Be patient. There are still many chapters left to be written.