Kevin Durant has never been in this position, on this stage, facing this much pressure, in his young career. Things have come so fast for him — the scoring titles, the world championship gold medal — that it’s sometimes easy to forget that no matter how many punishing dunks he might throw down, or how often he can get that velvety shot to fall, Durant remains a developing superstar whose best days are still ahead of him.
But for an Oklahoma City Thunder team that has never used age or inexperience as an excuse, the 22-year-old Durant will have to expedite that process if he is going to lead this franchise beyond the determined Dallas Mavericks. His final stat line was respectable -- 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists – in the Thunder’s 93-87 loss in Game 3 but Durant struggled mightily in his first Western Conference finals home game.
Early on, he was either nervous, antsy or overwhelmed with excitement as he missed his first four shots, including an off-balance airball that saw him fall on his backside on the way down. Durant missed 15 of 22 shots -- including all eight of his shots from three-point range. As he did in the Thunder’s losses in previous series against Memphis, Durant allowed the Mavericks to take him out of the game by keeping him away from the ball.
“I’ve got to cut a little more without the basketball because they’re not leaving me at all,” Durant said after the game. “They’re doubling if I catch the ball; pick-and-rolls, they’re doubling. So I’ve got to move without the basketball and do a way better job.”
Durant was hounded mostly by Shawn Marion, with smaller doses of DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd and anyone else Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle placed in front of him to trap and shield him. His frustration was palpable as he sat on the bench and watched Brendan Haywood make a layup and free throw to give Dallas a 23-point second-quarter lead, and he rubbed his hand across face, unable to watch what was unfolding.
“Oh, man. Frustrating,” Durant said after the Mavericks took a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. “It’s very disappointing because we know what we have to do. First, we have to take care of home floor next game, and then we have to go back on the road. We’ve won there before, so we’ve got come back and bring a different mindset. The rest of the series is going to be tough. But if it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Durant and Dirk Nowitzki both shot horribly through the first three quarters, with the two all-stars combining to go 7 for 23. But the final quarter showed the difference between a 13-year veteran in his 116th postseason game and a four-year veteran in his 21st playoff game. Nowitzki found a way to overcome the smothering defense of Nick Collison, scored 10 of the Mavericks’ final 15 points and carried his team to the finish.
“He’s going to touch the ball as frequently as we can get it to him,” Carlisle said. “And if he misses a few shots, you know, he’s not going to be deterred, he’s not going to get discouraged, and he’s got the kind of will he’s going to keep going at it.”
Nowitzki has the advantage of playing on a team that doesn’t forget that it has the best 7-foot jump shooter in NBA history. In the fourth quarter, the Mavericks repeatedly found Nowitzki in his spots and Nowitzki delivered.
“I’ve got to keep attacking for this team like I have the last, whatever, 13 years,” Nowitzki said. “This team needs me to score and keep being aggressive, and my teammates obviously support me and find me in good positions where I can make plays. Yeah, I’ve got to keep coming.”
The Thunder needs the same from Durant. He scored nine fourth-quarter points, but he went more than eight minutes without a field goal, including a five-minute stretch without even taking a shot.
Russell Westbrook scored 14 of his game-high 30 points, helping to bring back the Thunder and reminding fans and critics of his explosive and electrifying talent -- and that he didn’t let his fourth-quarter benching in Game 2 linger into the next game. But Westbrook also showed how he can be a frustrating playmaker. He had just four assists — one fewer than Durant — and the Thunder failed to get Durant the ball during the most critical stretch of the game.
Westbrook made a driving left-handed layup to bring the Thunder within eight points with 6 ½ minutes remaining, but Oklahoma City forgot about Durant over the next three possessions, as Westbrook missed a jumper, Daequan Cook missed a three-pointer and James Harden brought the team within 80-74 with two free throws. Three possessions, no touches for Durant.
Collison dunked to bring the Thunder within six with 3:19 remaining, and Durant again became a spectator. He watched Westbrook shoot an airball three-pointer, Cook shoot an errant three-pointer that hit the bottom of the backboard, Westbrook drive inside and lose the ball, and Harden miss a three-pointer. Four possessions, no touches for Durant.
Part of the problem was that the Thunder players were a bit out of control, but the other problem was that Durant didn’t do enough to assert himself. He can’t settle or think teams — especially a vetern team with championship-starved veterans, such as Dallas — are going to just let him roll around unimpeded to bury jumpers. Durant will need to be more demanding; not just stand at the three-point line with his hand in the air.
Durant had a similar disappearing act in Game 6 against Memphis, when he went out with a 3-for-14 whimper in a potential closeout game. He bounced back to drop 39 points in the series clincher.
“Kevin, yeah, we could have probably did a better job, but he wasn’t having the offensive game,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said. “He was still fighting and trying to find it, and I give him a lot of credit because he didn’t give in to having a bad shooting game. He kept fighting.”
But Durant realizes that he’s going to have to fight harder. Durant is a humble, unassuming star, but he has let his mean streak show as he mean-mugged Haywood after dunking all over him in Dallas and when he called Chris Bosh a “fake tough guy” earlier in the season. He’ll also have to have an edge with his teammates, to remind them that their best player cannot go long in playoff games without touching the ball. Nowitzki went through a similar process. The 22-year-old Durant will get there.
Before the opening tip on Saturday, Durant walked up to Westbrook, gave him a hug and wanted him to put his previous performance behind him. “Last game, it’s over,” Durant told him, waving his arms across his chest as if he were wiping the slate clean. Now, it seems Durant will have to quickly put Game 3 behind him.
“I’ve got to stay confident, stay positive,” Durant said. “I know my teammates are going to pick me up and encourage me every time I step on that floor, so I am in good hands. I feel good.”