OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant talked about leadership and trusting in his teammates and even the power of positive thinking.
But he knew, like the rest of us, beating Memphis was going to be up to him.
There was no Russell Westbrook, which meant there was no other answer. Not a legitimate one, anyway.
And as badly as Durant needed help for the entirety of the five games against Memphis, he really needed to help himself first.
Because in Game 5, he had every chance. Instead, Durant missed and missed and seemingly got more and more tired. Still, Durant’s last shot was his chance at absolution. A time-running-down 16-foot jumper that is right in his wheelhouse. The kind of shot Durant has made the past three seasons. The kind of shot he made in Game 1 against these same Grizzlies for the victory.
The result was an 88-84 Memphis win, the worst game of the season for Durant and a season-ender for the Thunder. All in one game.
“He really wanted to carry his team,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “He was the go-to guy and we knew that. Even when he was open, he was missing shots that he normally makes.”
That’s because carrying a team takes effort. And with no other offensive option, Durant looked like he crumbled under all that weight. He played every minute and every second of Wednesday’s game, and it showed as he pressed harder and shots came up short, the symptom of tired legs and a broken team.
Durant was 5 of 21 Wednesday and a combined 4 of 22 in the fourth quarter and overtime in the last three games of this series. That’s what happens when you have no help. That’s what happens when it’s on you, whether you admit it or not. He played too many minutes – over five more than he averaged during the regular season – so while the points still piled up, his legs betrayed him.
How else to explain a 50-percent shooter tossing up an air-ball on an open 3-pointer in the third quarter and coming up short on a five-footer with just less than four minutes to play? How else to explain away seven turnovers Wednesday?
“Tonight he did play all 48,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “But I saw great energy in the fourth quarter. He wanted to play. He wasn’t going down and sit and watch. I was going to try and rest him, but the game did not dictate it.”
No, it wasn’t just the game that didn’t dictate it, it was the fact the season didn’t dictate it. Once Westbrook went out with a fluky knee injury during Game 2 against the Rockets in the first round, the Thunder offense devolved into seeing just how much Durant could do.
It was KD and not much else. Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka had their moments. Derek Fisher did, too, but Durant couldn’t bail them out in Game 5 because he couldn’t help himself.
Yet there he was with a chance to play hero one more time, getting the ball above the 3-point line with just less than 10 seconds left and shaking free with about five seconds to go. It was maybe the most open he was all game.
“It was the shot we wanted,” Brooks said. “That’s a shot I’ll live with. I’ll live with his decisions. That was a good look. Unfortunately he didn’t make the shots tonight. He had a heck of a year shooting. Tonight he didn’t make the shots.”
“Actually, I have peace,” Durant said. “No matter what happened, we kept our heads high. You couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Durant could have asked for a lot more. No one would have blamed him if he said he was tired or said he just didn’t have the energy. He would have gotten a pass.
Instead, Durant left the court after a series of hugs and handshakes, and 45 minutes after the game, he returned to the court for more hugs and handshakes – this time from fans and family. Durant never stopped smiling, carrying a positive attitude all the way to the end, even when he couldn’t carry his team.