As defining moments go, Game 6 of these Western Conference Finals on Saturday night from Chesapeake Energy Arena may not amount to more than a footnote in Kevin Durant’s fabled legacy.
His future is too bright, his body of work already too big.
But these are the moments that mean the most, the games that ultimately color a player’s greatness.
The Oklahoma City Thunder is now on the brink of elimination, staring at a 3-2 series hole against a San Antonio Spurs team that appears resolute in returning to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive season.
“That means do or die,” Durant said Friday. “That’s self-explanatory. If you can’t get up for that, then…”
Durant didn’t complete his sentence. Didn’t need to.
You know the rest. What the sports world deems athletes that can’t or don’t rise to the occasion.
“I’ve always been the guy that’s going to bring it and that’s going to play to win,” Durant continued. “It’s a must-win. I can’t sit home and think about it every single minute of the day. But I’ve got to know how important it is.”
Game 6 has been good to Durant this postseason. The star forward has been phenomenal in those contests, posting monster numbers and leading his team to pivotal victories in each of the first two rounds to help OKC get to this point.
But in order for the Thunder to keep its season alive, Durant might need to be even better Saturday night.
He’s the NBA’s reigning MVP, and with that award comes an expectation that the recipient demolishes any and everything standing between him and the sport’s promised land. Durant himself in recent days has brazenly boasted of another level to which he can take his game.
Yet despite a postseason performance that can be classified as something closer to solid than spectacular, Durant largely has dodged criticisms that his peers, players such as Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, routinely garner when their play falls short of lofty expectations.
Perhaps that’s why Durant said Friday that he doesn’t feel pressure to deliver in Game 6.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Pressure comes from everybody else on the outside, from media, from friends, family. But I play this game because I love it, and I play to win. If I give it my all, it may not be enough for everybody else but I know what I gave so I can live with it.”
What you must understand about Durant is that he entered this season with a new attitude, a more mature mentality that prevents him from putting basketball above all else and allowing the results to consume him.
“I’ve learned not to let basketball take over my life,” he said again Friday, echoing sentiments he first shared with The Oklahoman in October. “So when I go home I try to release and just enjoy my life.”
Unless, of course, Durant doesn’t step up.
The truth is the MVP hasn’t had the greatest postseason. It rarely gets mentioned, as the majority of blame for Thunder losses typically lands at the feet of Thunder coach Scott Brooks, center Kendrick Perkins and point guard Russell Westbrook, perhaps in that order.
But quietly, Durant’s Player Efficiency Rating has dipped from a league-best 29.9 in the regular season to 23.1 this postseason, still a top 10 rating but one that sandwiches him between Golden State forward Marreese Speights and Dallas forward Brandan Wright.
Westbrook owns a 25.0 PER.
Along the way, Durant struggled against Memphis and bulldog defender Tony Allen, had a few fits against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round, most notably when Chris Paul unexpectedly had success guarding him down the stretch of Game 4, and has looked like the third best player, at best, in this conference final.
“I feel like I put my handprint on the series,” Durant said of his performance thus far against the Spurs. “It may not be in the usual way that people expect me to go out and score 40 a game, but I think I put my imprint on the series.”
Durant explained that he’s altered his approach in this series.
“It’s a different series compared to the first two, whereas you’ve got to beat this team with a group of guys,” Durant said. “Against the Clippers, me and Russell, we came out and scored 40 points apiece and (would) be able to win. But this team makes you play with everybody…We can’t just focus on going out and scoring a lot of points.”
More than anything, it’s been Durant’s energy level and body language that seemingly has dipped in this series. Gone is the cold-blooded ‘Slim Reaper’ we witnessed coming for defenders’ souls this past winter. More and more, Durant appears content deferring to Westbrook and other teammates.
When the Spurs switched their best perimeter defender, third-year forward Kawhi Leonard, onto Westbrook in Game 4, a figurative slap in Durant’s face, he watched it happen without punishing his eventual defender, Danny Green.
His coach fell on the sword for that Friday.
“We have to — I have to — do a better job of putting him in positions when he’s guarded by, like (Thursday) night, guarded by Green, to be able to catch and be able to attack quickly and not a lot of dribbling,” Brooks said. “I think that’s when he’s at his best (against) guys that are guarding him with small guys.”
If history is an indicator, Durant will be ready Saturday.
In the Thunder’s first two Game 6s this postseason, Durant scored 36 points with 10 rebounds in a road win over Memphis and dropped 39 points with 16 rebounds in a road win over the Clippers.
In six career Game 6s, Durant has averaged 28.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 41.4 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3-point range and 88.8 percent from the free throw line in 42.8 minutes.
Saturday night might be a footnote in Durant’s career.
Or it could become a resume booster that simply reminds us all who we know him to be.
It’s all up to the MVP.
“We know that it’s a situation where we lose, we go home, and nobody wants to do that,” Durant said. “So we just leave it out there, and whatever happens we live with. Most of the time, when we play extremely hard, play well, play together, we come out on top.”