|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
SAN ANTONIO -- Kevin Durant had talked for seven minutes, and all it did was serve as a preamble for what came next, a candid assessment of what's required for the NBA's Most Valuable Player to continue playing beyond the conference finals: "I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done."
Usually when we ask Durant to go next-level in the playoffs, it means he has to score more points. This time he needs to make a difference defensively. Without Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder were inept at protecting the rim in their Game 1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, allowing 66 inside points.
|Kevin Durant and the Thunder need a better performance on defense in Game 2.|
Durant spent most of his time preaching the team concept, saying things such as "We help each other out, both offense and defense. That's how it's been since I've been in this league."
That still means it's up to each of them to do more. But Durant is the only one with MVP status to uphold. The offense was fine. Durant scored 28 points, Westbrook added 25, and they continued to be the only teammates to average 25-plus per game for such an extended playoff run since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2003.
Durant needs to be more like Shaq in 2000 and 2001, when he went on a rebounding rampage and averaged 15.4 boards per game to win his first two championships. Or be like LeBron James in 2011, when he put the clamps on Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference finals.
Durant's defensive checklist goes like this: "Just be more engaged ... helping out the bigs a little bit more. Being ready in the pick-and-roll coverage. Just being more physical." It's doubtful he can be physical enough to bother Tim Duncan, who shouted for the ball the first time he saw Durant guarding him, scowled when Manu Ginobili didn't comply, then went to the other side of the lane, shoved Durant to clear space and took the entry pass.
The Thunder were actually at their best with a bigger, more defensive lineup that included Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.
Durant and Westbrook handled the scoring, and Oklahoma City went on a 17-5 run to briefly take the lead. Duncan, who scored 21 points in the first half, missed five of six shots in the quarter and scored only three points. Kawhi Leonard went 0-for-4. But when Thunder coach Scott Brooks went to a smaller lineup in a search for offense in the fourth quarter, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich threw a small lineup back at him and prevailed.
Collison used a great term to describe the Spurs' offense: organized. "They play with pace -- make or miss, they play with pace," Collison said. "If you don't give them any resistance, they're going to continue to move the ball and make shots."
Durant needs to use his long arms to be a disrupter. Extend those arms sideways to block passing lanes. Hold the hands high to distract shooters. In the regular season, Durant's scoring and assists hit new career highs. But his rebounds and blocked shots dipped slightly. The Thunder needed more offense with Westbrook missing almost half of the Thunder's games dealing with surgeries for the knee he injured in last year's playoffs. Westbrook is back now, but Ibaka is out. It's up to Durant to adapt to the changing needs of his team.