There is no doubt that after Game 1 the Thunder must receive better contributions from its role players. Ibaka and James Harden, the Thunder's third and fourth scoring options, combined to shoot 2 for 13 from the field. Durant and Westbrook aren't likely to continue to be able to carry them by scoring 72 points between them. Getting others involved might mean playing through Durant.
Durant appears ready. He began his fourth NBA season playing with the ball in his hands more than ever. He was asked to make plays. Between being a ballhandler and being deployed at different positions, Durant's growth this season helped to turn the Thunder's offense dangerous.
But Durant went on the record with his personal challenge for the year on Oct. 2, saying he wanted to have more assists than turnovers. After totaling 40 more turnovers than assists last year and as a rookie, and 20 more giveaways than helpers as a sophomore, Durant came just five assists shy this season.
The experiment, however, took flight in earnest in the Thunder's second preseason opener against Miami on Oct. 8 inside Kansas City's Sprint Center. Durant toyed with Heat forward and reigning back-to-back league MVP LeBron James. Durant played point guard, orchestrating the offense and using length and versatility to at times humiliate James.
The Heat won, 103-96, but it set the stage for Durant to dominate James in the second regular-season meeting at Miami, a 96-85 Thunder win that equated to round three. Durant led all scorers with 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting. James had just 19 points on 8-for-21 shooting. Durant had a game-high six assists. James had just three.
That was in March. Much of the season's first two months, however, weren't so pretty.
Durant spent the early stages of his playmaking development dribbling off his foot, overpassing and driving into offensive fouls. The offense suffered for it, getting mostly low-percentage or hurried shots if not stalling out completely.
Durant wasn't playing instinctively. It proved not all of his skills came naturally.
“I wasn't finding a man quick enough and I would hold the ball too long,” Durant remembered. “But now I'm just making a quick pass and not trying to force anything. Sometimes you might have to force the issue a little bit to get where you want to get. But I pick and choose my spots.”
As Durant struggled before our eyes, many observers called for the coaching staff to revert to simply running him off screens. That strategy, after all, was always when Durant was at his best. But he never would have blossomed into a complete player that way. Never would have reached his full potential.
Because of those growing pains, Durant is now able to shred Denver in Game 2 if the Nuggets do send a nightly dose of double teams.
Flash back to Christmas. By then, after such a shaky start, Durant had graduated as a playmaker. Against the Nuggets on Christmas night, Durant made Denver pay as soon as soon as Karl ran multiple defenders in Durant's direction.
Durant entered the fourth quarter sitting on 40 points. The Nuggets quickly began sending double and even triple teams toward Durant. Despite having a shot at scoring 50, which he has never done, Durant gladly deferred, gift-wrapping passes to his teammates on time and on target. He embraced the Nuggets' pressure then promptly swung the ball to set up quality shots for his teammates. Durant had as many assists in that final period (two) as shot attempts.
So while the Nuggets might try again to make Durant do something he wasn't drafted to do, Denver might quickly realize how far he's come since 2007.