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.
Ultimately, Durant led the league in total minutes during the regular season, logging 3,122. He played at least forty minutes in six of the final eight regular season games, including the final three. The Thunder had chances to rest him in the final two but struggled at New Orleans, where OKC suffered an embarrassing defeat, and against Detroit in the season finale. Durant’s now averaging 47.8 minutes in this series.
It’s resulted in Durant shooting just 40 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from the 3-point line and 71.8 percent from the foul line. They’re Durant’s worst postseason shooting percentages since his playoff debut in 2010.
He’s uncharacteristically missing shots that he doesn’t just generally make but shots that he’s grown to be money on, like layups, free throws and rhythmic mid-range jumpers.
His struggles are the biggest reason why the Thunder is staring at a 3-2 series hole.
“He hasn’t made the shots that he normally makes, that he’s made for years,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Every player will go through that during a stretch…There’s no question that he would like to make some of those shots that he has taken. But the great ones just continue to focus on the next game, and he’s a great one.”
Last year, the prevailing belief was the absence of Westbrook made it easy for Memphis to do a number on Durant in the second round. But with Westbrook on the court this time, the Grizzlies still have turned this series into a mugging of the four-time scoring champ.
He’s contending with the grit of Tony Allen, whose defense appears to be more of an insurmountable Kryptonite for Durant’s scoring powers by the day, and the length of Tayshaun Prince. Both have flummoxed the league’s most formidable scorer.
Now it seems it’s all gone to Durant’s head.
Before Game 5, Durant scribbled “It’s just BBall” on his game shoes, a message to either remind himself to stay calm in the face of rising pressure or a note to self that simply rationalizes his struggles.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, and he has to continue to step up and take those shots. And he will,” Brooks said. “I believe in him. I have the utmost respect for his game and all the work that he puts in. We’re looking forward to Thursday night’s game. It’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
An opportunity for others.
A defining moment for Durant.