Durant, Thunder held back by Grizzlies

Grizzlies forward Tayshaun Prince dribbles as Thunder forward Kevin Durant defends during the second quarter.

Mark D. Smith/Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY – Now there’s going to be plenty of talk about referee Joey Crawford stalling and icing Kevin Durant with 27.5 seconds to go in overtime of Game 5 Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.

And, OK, so what if that’s exactly what happened when Crawford took the ball out of Durant’s hands to correct the team fouls readout on the scoreboard? Durant is about to be named the MVP of the league. He’s a scoring champ and by most accounts this city’s savior. Everyone knows it.

Durant should have made that last free throw which would have tied the game. He’s above being iced. He’s good enough to make free throws in any situation, any game, especially in overtime. At home. In the playoffs. When his team needed him most.

Instead, it’s hard to see it as anything more than a letdown. Oklahoma City lost, 100-99 in overtime and trails the series 3-2.

A season ago, Durant’s play against Memphis in the playoffs was forgivable. He didn’t have Russell Westbrook with him and he tired easily as the Thunder lost four games in a row and lost in the Western semifinals. But this season against Memphis in the playoffs, Durant’s play has been forgettable.

"He hasn’t made shots," coach Scott Brooks said of Durant.  "But he’s still competing. He’s a great free throw shooter. He’s a great shooter. I believe he’s going to come back next game and give us a great effort and I believe his shots will fall."

That’s good Durant is competing, but this isn’t a rookie facing Milwaukee in a January Tuesday night game. This is Kevin Durant, and so, he got a bad break from Crawford at the foul line, it’s not like Durant didn’t get to shoot that last free throw. Durant missed it and missed two others as well, going three-of-six from the line.

This has been Durant’s worst playoff series since 2010 when the Thunder lost in the first round to the Lakers and it has come during his finest season. That’s what is most-astounding and that’s why Durant doesn’t get a free pass anymore. Durant scored 25 or more points in 41 games this season. He carried the Thunder when Westbrook was out of the lineup. But Tuesday, his late miss at the free throw line is what folks around here will remember, point to and possibly use Crawford as a crutch. But really the fall in this game came well before and then even after the free throw.

"I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down," Durant said. "Unfortunately I didn’t. I got to make that free throw."

He’s got to. That’s what an MVP does, but it’s not what this MVP has done this series. Only once in the five games against Memphis has Durant managed to shoot 50 percent. He was 10-of-24 Tuesday with six turnovers and at least that many bad decisions, including one on the game’s final shot where Durant had nearly 3 seconds, but settled (again) for a 28-foot, contested 3-pointer.  

"He has opportunities to catch and drive," Brooks said. "I give him that decision to make a play. No question it was a tough shot."

No question Durant needs to be better, and now, if you haven’t already, is time to start hedging your, "But he just has to wake up and play well at some point," line of reasoning.

There are no signs pointing to Durant figuring things out, there’s just a proliferation of minutes played, mental weariness and the pressure of getting out of the first round of the playoffs.

Durant played 52 minutes Tuesday. He’s played more than 40 in 10 of 13 April games. A 50 percent shooter during the regular season, Durant is just 40 percent this series against Memphis and worse than that when Tony Allen is guarding him.

"KD has had to make more plays with the way we’re defending him," Memphis guard Mike Conley said.

Down just one point with less than 2 minutes to play, Durant had his hands on his knees and was bent over in what looked like exhaustion. While the Thunder had the ball. In the front court.

And in overtime, Durant took the opening possession and turned the ball over to Mike Miller, essentially handing him the ball. The problem compounded when Durant didn’t get back on defense and Miller made a 3-pointer.

Before that? Durant started the game three-of-four. He missed his next six shots. In the fourth quarter, Durant was just two-of-five from the field. He made a 3-pointer with 6:46 to play giving the Thunder the lead but didn’t shoot again until he missed a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left.

"I wouldn’t say I wasn’t involved," Durant said. "Sometimes you have to be a decoy out there and I’m OK with that. If I want the ball, I have to go rebound it and bring it up. I trust my teammates. I have to be better for my teammates."

Durant did score 26 points on Tuesday and the Thunder have already won once in Memphis this series. They trail the Grizzlies 3-2 and could very well still win and move onto the Western Conference semifinals.

But Durant is going to have start playing like the MVP he is.

What did you think of Kevin Durant Tuesday night? Tell me on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK