MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Joey Crawford came sprinting at Kevin Durant, blowing a whistle and waving arms and the bright lights of Chesapeake Arena shining off Crawford’s bald head, and Durant surely must have thought only one thing.
No sanctuary even at the foul line. Even with the clock stopped, Tony Allen sends a demon to bedevil the NBA’s presumptive most valuable player.
Allen is inside Durant’s head. Durant is dazed and confused. Hesitant and docile. The Memphis Doberman has turned Durant into mere mortal this Western Conference playoff series. The Thunder is on the brink of elimination, and if Durant doesn’t return to something approaching the Slim Reaper in Game 6 Thursday night, Grim Sleeper is going to be more like it.
Durant has made just 40 percent of his shots against the Grizzlies. Allen’s been in Durant’s sneakers. Meets him at the bus and tucks him in at night. Then haunts Durant’s dreams.
Don’t believe it? Durant is so out of sorts, he’s not making hay even when Allen is on the bench charming teammates with his mercurial ways. The last two games, Durant has made just eight of 20 shots with Allen not in the game. Durant is so out of sorts, his foul shooting is mediocre — 28 of 39, a .718 percentage that is below NBA journeyman standards, much less Durant’s own .882 career percentage.
Durant went to the foul line three times – and made just one of two on all three trips, including a miss after Crawford’s interruption, when the Thunder trailed 100-99 with 27.5 seconds left in overtime, a score that held up at the end. For six years, Durant has shot foul shots on a string. Mister Automatic. Now he’s unreliable.
All because the mighty Memphis defense, led by Allen, has knocked Durant from his moorings.
“Obviously we’re trying to make his catches tough, and if we could make it so he never got to touch the ball, I certainly would,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Our guys did a good job, not just the guys who were guarding him, but the guys who were supporting the guys who were guarding him.”
Durant was not available for interviews Wednesday but said after the game Tuesday, “I just gotta stay disciplined in my shots and knock them down. Stay aggressive and stay positive.”
Trouble is, Durant’s aggression and positive attitude come and go. His shoulders have dipped repeatedly during rough stretches of this streetfight. His effort is spotty. His confidence is shaken.
That’s not appropriate for a 25-year-old superstar. A 21-year-old star? Sure. When Durant made just 35 percent of his shots in that six-game Laker series in 2010, we knew it was growing pains. Knew that Durant was being hounded by Ron Artest, the Tony Allen of yesteryear, a guy who sold out to defense and could stage Les’ Miserables for even the sharpest of shooters.
But that was four years ago. Allen is a beast, but the Thunder has to get better production from Durant. This is not a team built to take up the slack elsewhere. Sure, a Reggie Jackson 32-point game can fall out of the sky. But count on that too many times, and it’s happy trails for the Thunder.
“I’ve seen great players have poor playoff games,” said Super Vet Derek Fisher. “That happens, in terms of shot percentages. But what can’t dip down is that undying sense of urgency, every play, every situation is the most important one.”
Fisher says the Thunder can’t lay this series all on Durant or even Russell Westbrook. But Fisher is wrong. This Thunder team was not built to sustain off days from its stars. This Thunder team is fueled by Durant and Westbrook. One or the other, preferably both, have to play at a high level.
If both struggle, nothing else matters. The Thunder is cooked.
This is a historic series in more ways than just the four straight overtimes, which might never be equaled. This series is becoming an historically bad series for the presumptive MVP. And it doesn’t speak well for the Thunder future.
The Durant and Michael Jordan career ascensions often are compared. For good reason. Not that Durant is or will be the player that Jordan was, but that Durant is progressing, growing, learning and hopefully developing into the champion that Jordan became.
Except at age 26, his fifth season in the NBA, Jordan led his Bulls to the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals. Durant, at 25, is in his seventh pro season. Chicago ran into the Detroit Pistons, the Bad Boys of recent 30-for-30 fame. Those Pistons were one of the great defensive teams of all time and one of the toughest. They dispatched the Bulls and went on to the NBA title. In 1990, same script. Detroit beat Chicago for the East crown and also won the NBA. In 1991, it was Jordan’s time. The Bulls swept the Pistons, then Chicago won the first of its six NBA titles.
Three straight Eastern Conference showdowns for Jordan against Joe Dumars and Friends.
In ’89, Jordan shot 46 percent from the field and averaged 29.7 points. In ’90, 46.7 percent and 32.1 points a game. In ’91, 53.5 percent from the field and 29.8 points a game.
Jordan, even while paying his championship dues, was the bedeviler. So far in this Memphis series, Durant is the bedeviled.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.