MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Kevin Durant has won a fistful of scoring titles, and he has another coming for his efforts this season.
Durant has taken a team from the bottom of the league to the NBA Finals, and will most certainly win his first MVP award later this month.
Until now, yes, this very instant, maybe halfway through a first-round series against Memphis in the Western Conference first round, Durant has been the untouchable superstar.
Michael Jordan never was. Kobe Bryant, either. LeBron James carried more baggage than Southwest Airlines. They all were sensational, but they all played with, dealt with and fought the "When is he going to win a title" stigma. Durant has avoided it. Hasn’t heard it.
The Oklahoma City forward scored 30 points Thursday, but he struggled the entire way, looking like a player who felt the need to do everything by himself. The Thunder are down 2-1, and no matter what they did during the regular season (59 wins and the No. 2 seed) and no matter who else is playing (Russell Westbrook is healthy), OKC cant win if Durant doesn’t play better.
A season ago, Durant couldn’t get his team past Memphis in the second round of the playoffs. This season, Durant is having the worst playoff series of his career and he’s dangerously close to to no longer being above criticism.
OKC lost a second-consecutive overtime game, and Thursday’s was a kick-to-the-privates 98-95 loss after the Thunder rallied from 17 points down in the fourth quarter by holding Memphis scoreless for more than 7 minutes.
Already Durant has been combative this playoff series, testy after going 12-for-28 in the Game 2 loss and you have to figure the combination of Tony Allen’s defense and the Thunder’s poor play is only going to exacerbate the situation.
Durant went 0-for-8 from the 3-point line. He was 1-of-13 on shots from more than 10 feet. Durant wound up 10-of-27 from the field.
For the series, Durant is 35-of-80 (43 percent). Durant shot 50 percent from the field this season.
Durant was a 45 percent shooter last season in the playoffs and he shot 51.7 percent in the year the Thunder made the Finals.
Maybe Durant is tired, like he was a season ago when Russell Westbrook was out and Durant had to carry the team. It didn’t work. Memphis won in five games.
Maybe Durant is fatigued. He played 49 minutes on Thursday, 45 in Game 2 and 43 in Game 1. He’s played more than 40 minutes in 9-of-12 games in April.
Maybe he doesn’t have the energy. He has shot 27 3-pointers in three games against Memphis, making eight. (29.6 percent) and maybe that’s why with just less than 20 seconds left Thursday night and the Thunder down three points, Durant put up a contested 3-pointer instead of going right to the basket.
There’s probably an element of being worn down by minutes and by expectation. There’s probably a degree of difficulty from dealing with Allen, who defends Durant like no other.
And there’s probably some part of Durant who is crying for some help. Westbrook scored 30 points, including an improbable 4-point play, but he was just 9-of-26 shooting. Serge Ibaka had just 12 points, Reggie Jackson had just four on 2-of-9 shooting and Caron Butler had no points in 22 minutes. The bench combined for nine points. Everyone not named Westbrook or Durant had a total of 35.
That’s the kind of production which will make Durant press more, not less. All of it trends toward, "Can Durant do it on his own?" Knowing he has to put up points, pile up minutes and come up with an answer against a team it has now lost to in the playoffs six times in the last seven meetings is a burden.
People will start pointing to Durant, wondering about his shot, what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed.
The Thunder are only down 2-1 but another pair of losses and OKC will be out of the playoffs and Durant will be carrying baggage he’s never had to deal with before.