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Friday, May 30, 2014
Durant and Thunder face uphill battle

By Royce Young
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant looked tired.

He walked slowly over to the assembled media Friday afternoon, wearing socks and sandals, a "KD 35 shirt," and a backward hat that said "Tackma," which apparently is a brand I previously didn't know existed.

He wiggled his way in between the microphones and tripods, then waited for the first question.

You had this morning to look at the film. What is going to be the key heading into Game 6 for you all?

He lifted his eyes, cleared his throat and started his answer.

"Just being in the right spots on defense," he said, pausing as if to consider whether he wanted to just stop there, "... and helping each other out a little bit more than we did the last game."

It sounded as if Durant had just woken up. His voice was low, his commitment to this media session waning. Maybe he wasn't tired but just tired of us. Or maybe, with another elimination game facing him along with the uphill climb of beating the Spurs twice, he was just trying to maintain a cold focus.

This postseason has been a series of ridiculous highs and lows for the Thunder, as Durant went from being dogged nonstop by Tony Allen to winning an MVP to watching his team get blown out by 52 points without Serge Ibaka to Ibaka returning to help even the series to another deflating 28-point humiliation. Coming off Thursday's embarrassment in San Antonio with the Thunder erasing all momentum and confidence they previously had, you might assume Durant stewed over that for the next 24 hours. But he has let it go. He's moving on.

"I've learned not to let basketball take over my life, so when I go home I try to release and just enjoy my life, just get away from it, but also in the back of my mind just get ready for the next game," Durant said. "It was frustrating last night going on, but we have to look at the grand scheme of things and know that we've got another opportunity. I'm excited about that."

With an MVP trophy comes great perceived responsibility, a burden to save your team when it can't save itself. Durant rose to that occasion before he was officially handed his trophy, scoring 36 in a must-win Game 6 in Memphis. He shook off a lot of noise to do it -- "Mr. Unreliable," most notably -- finding an inner peace. He later admitted to finding some motivation from the negativity, but that might've just been after the fact. Durant spent this entire season trying to tell himself that basketball isn't the most important thing in his life, that growing as a man is what really mattered. He's still just 25 -- which is ridiculous -- and through the experiences that have built up the past several years, he has learned what to dwell on and what to let go of.

"I have friends and family that make sure I don't go crazy, just do stuff that makes me happy and just, like I said, try not to always think about it," he said. "The mind is a powerful thing. When you think positive thoughts and thoughts that it's going to move forward, like I said, to get your mind off it, it helps, also. Just having positive people around me not always criticizing me helps."

The "Mr. Unreliable" flap was the first time a scant word of negativity has really found its way to Durant. For the most part, he has played his first seven seasons unscathed. The brunt of the judgment has always fallen on Durant's brash teammate, or his coach for being incapable of putting him in a system that produces uncontested layups or something.

Really, the only critical trickles directed at Durant are that he needs to be more assertive alongside Russell Westbrook or that he needs to find more of a consistent commitment to the defensive end. For the most part, though, we're all just too much in awe of his ability to get wrapped up in the negativity. There a certain confident resolve that he's destined to break through eventually. It's really how we all should've been treating LeBron James all along.

But as an MVP, eventually all that equity is going to start to run out. Durant might not ever reach LeBron levels of scrutiny, but the longer a transformational player goes without winning the ultimate prize, the more he's watched. The trajectory of Durant's career has him trending directly at "league legend," although he doesn't want to become one of those "but" guys. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, John Stockton -- some of the greatest players ever, but…

Even with his ascent, though, Durant doesn't feel any different. He plays for his family, he plays for his teammates, he plays for his organization, he plays for his city. He plays for a purebred obsession for the game. He doesn't play to validate awards or etch his name alongside the greats. At least not yet.

"Pressure comes from everybody else from the outside, from media, from friends, family, but I play this game because I love it, and I play to win," he said. "If I give it my all, it may not be enough for everybody else, but I know what I gave, so I can live with it."

This Game 6 is different from the one Durant and the Thunder responded so convincingly to in Memphis. Extending the series this time around doesn't give the Thunder a decisive Game 7 in their building but sends them back to the place they've lost three games by a combined 80 points. The Thunder are playing for that next game, but it could be just delaying the inevitable. Mentally, that can be overwhelming. It can be exhausting.

But the thing with the special ones like Durant, those kind of moments are when they separate themselves. It's when they cement their status. LeBron faced a do-or-die moment in Boston in 2012 and found maybe the greatest performance of his career. It's not that Durant has to replicate that. He just has to play. He just has to give what he has, then accept the results. A concept he seems to understand pretty well already.