MEMPHIS — On the morning that the Thunder started its championship march with the rough and tough Memphis Grizzlies, Kevin Durant was asked if he was ready for this.
But not just any kind of ready.
“I feel great,” Durant said. “I feel great.”
“I’ve seen it all in the playoffs; throughout the regular season, I’ve seen it all,” he added. “So I feel good. Teams are going to try to beat me up.”
He knew exactly what was coming.
And still, it took only five games for Durant to look like a man battered and bruised.
He’s now on the brink of potentially becoming the fourth player in NBA history to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award and be bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Wes Unseld, Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki are the other three. Two of those three went on to win a championship later in their careers. The other was caught in the wrong era, the Michael Jordan era.
This is supposed to be the dawn of Durant’s era.
But in order for Durant to avoid joining that ill-fated group, he’ll need to dig deep in a must-win situation and deliver a showcase performance in Thursday night’s Game 6 against the Grizzlies. He’ll need to supply a signature moment to put his stamp on this series and send it back to Oklahoma City for Game 7, a game that could save the Thunder’s season and Durant from an off-season of shame.
At this point, though, nobody can be sure if he has anything left to give.
We thought it was only a matter of time before Durant shook his slump. It turns out, we might have just been wrong. There’s been little reason to believe, if you judge by the last four games, that Durant will pull it together.
Despite coming off his best season, a year in which he averaged a career high in points (32.0) and rounded out his game even more by becoming a better playmaker (5.5 assists) and defender, he looks fatigued, mentally, physically and emotionally spent from a season guiding his franchise through the most adverse injury situation in the Thunder era.
He took on more responsibility when Russell Westbrook was juggled in and out of the lineup, missing 36 games while recovering from knee surgeries. He also captained his team when Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha both missed extended time with injuries.
He did it while locked in fiercely-competitive race for MVP with LeBron James.
Don’t underestimate the toll that took on Durant mentally.