Kevin Durant is good at basketball.
Scratch that. Kevin Durant is very good at basketball. What else can you say about a guy who just wrapped up his second straight scoring title and is considered among the league’s preeminent players when it comes to putting the ball in the basket?
You could say he wasn’t involved in situations when the Thunder needed him. You could say he deferred to Russell Westbrook a little too much. You could say he allowed himself to get frustrated late in games or whenever he was forced to deal with Shane Battier. In short, you could say he’s still learning how to be an elite player.
Statistically, there was nothing wrong with Durant’s play during the Memphis series. He’s not the sole reason Oklahoma City won the series, but they most certainly would have lost it without him. Who’s going to argue against a 26.4 points and 9.1 rebounds average over a grueling, seven-game series? How do you beef with a 39 point, 13-of-25 shooting performance, that leads a team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever? It’s
about more than numbers, though. It’s about when he takes his shots, when he gets others involved and when he decides to get out of the way altogether.
Otherwise, how do you reconcile Durant’s stats with the argument Russell Westbrook stole as many headlines as he did late-game scoring opportunities during the Memphis series? How do you mesh that with stories that
there was growing dissension among the team’s two stars – no matter how much everyone involved denies that it was an issue? Or questions about whether the two could co-exist longterm?
The short answer is that Kevin Durant is too much of a nice guy. Every story about Durant involves some act of basketball or real-world generosity. When Durant referred to Chris Bosh as a “fake tough guy” earlier in the
season, it was one of the rare times when the young man showed any real anger about something that happened on the floor.
Otherwise, frustration has been his modus operandi. It’s the frustration that spilled over into post-game interviews when he was handcuffed by the Lakers in last season’s playoffs. It’s also the frustration that so obviously showed on his face as he was being counseled and consoled on the sidelines by Maurice Cheeks during OKC’s eventual triple-overtime win in Game Four.
It’s been easy to lay the blame at the feet of Russell Westbrook. It would have been hard to fathom at the start of the Memphis series that he would have out-shot Durant for the entirety of the series (142 to 136). But it’s hard to completely fault a guy who is visibly doing everything in his power to help his team win. Maybe some of the fault lies with head coach Scott Brooks. Yet all he can do is call the play. It’s up to the players on the floor to execute.
Eventually, if Kevin Durant is upset about not getting the ball or not getting shots in key situations, Kevin Durant will have to find ways to fix that. It’s what made so much of the difference in Game Seven. Of the 25 shots he took, eight came in the first quarter to help the Thunder run out to an early lead. Eight more came in the third when Oklahoma City extended to a 14-point advantage to put the game away.
Compare that to the now infamous Game Four when Durant took nine shots total in the fourth quarter and three overtimes. In fact, he went 8 minutes and 44 seconds of game action (stretching from 5:56 remaining in the fourth quarter to 2:12 of the first overtime) with nothing more than a pair of free throws. Westbrook had six shots in that same stretch – including an off-balance attempt at a game-winner. It’s hard to imagine Kobe Bryant or LeBron James going through a similar run without someone in their respective locker rooms hearing about it after the game.
There’s nothing wrong with being a good guy. As a sports fan, most of us wish that athletic ability and high character were doled out in matching amounts. But being a nice guy away from the court doesn’t mean you have to be deferential on it. For as much as people have enjoyed Shaquille O’Neal‘s fun-loving behavior in whatever city he’s played, when Shaq laced ’em up in his prime, there was little that would stand in the way of him dominating the ball (except perhaps Kobe Bryant during the 2004 Finals against Detroit, but I digress).
Sooner or later, Durant will need to cultivate that on-court tough guy mentality if he wants to elevate himself from very good to great.
And who knows? Maybe the nifty backpacks Durant sported in post-game press conferences belies a fire that burns inside. There’s little doubt that he wants to get to the mountaintop. The question is whether he’s willing to demand to be the one that leads his team there.