|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant can do just about anything he wants to on a basketball court. He just can't do everything.
Not for 48 minutes, anyway. Not without a little more help. Not against a Memphis Grizzlies team that's throwing wave upon wave of defenders in his way.
It is a testament to Durant's greatness that he has put the Oklahoma City Thunder in position to win each of the first four games of this series with Russell Westbrook sidelined for the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury.
It is a crying shame he might go out in the second round anyway.
But that's where Durant and the Thunder find themselves, down 3-1 in this best-of-seven series entering Wednesday night's Game 5 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Durant has carried the Thunder in the two weeks since Westbrook went down. He's scored more, facilitated more and led more.
He's started to look like his good friend LeBron James used to look in Cleveland -- like the only star in the sky.
James had to leave Cleveland to find his supporting cast. What's so hard for Durant and the Thunder is that this franchise was built so neither Durant nor Westbrook ever has to go anywhere.
The Thunder have enough talent to win now and in the future. They have draft picks and salary-cap flexibility to tweak at the margins.
And then they had awful, awful luck.
"That's something I probably will reflect on after [the season]," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said Tuesday when asked if he's allowed himself to think how differently this series might have gone if Westbrook were healthy. "But that doesn't do us any good right now. ... That's so hypothetical; that's no fun to even think about. But I know we can do it. We just have to do it one game at a time."
What's hard to swallow is that, even without Westbrook, Durant has been so sublime in this series that the Thunder have been in position to win each game.
What's even harder to swallow is that it's Durant who has come up short at the end of games. The strain of carrying the team to the finish line, and of everything Memphis has thrown at him, has sapped him of his usually strong finishing kick.
In Monday night's 103-97 loss, Durant went 2-for-13 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime. That came after an 87-81 loss Saturday night in which he missed two critical free throws with 15 seconds to go that would have cut the Grizzlies lead to two points.
If Durant didn't have such a long track record of delivering in the clutch, he might be hearing criticism like James used to. Instead it's been respectfully quiet.
Though he would refuse it on the spot, he gets sympathy, and a pass.
"He's hard on himself," Brooks said. "He wants to make every right play. And he can do it. A lot of guys can't do it that want to do it. But he can do it, and he does."
The Thunder have shown some signs of life. Serge Ibaka found his shooting stroke in Game 4 after shooting just 35 percent from the field in the previous five games. Derek Fisher has hit some clutch 3-pointers. Young point guard Reggie Jackson has given them energy and more scoring than expected.
They just haven't done it consistently, which is the difference between role players and stars. Fisher has missed some key 3-pointers. Jackson has made some costly mistakes. Ibaka still can't explain how he missed two wide-open dunks in Game 3.
To his credit, Durant has been supportive of his teammates. When he's expressed frustration, it's been at himself and his performance.
"I felt worse than anybody for not coming through for our guys," Durant said after the Game 3 loss.
It's what a star should say and feel. Durant long ago accepted that responsibility. He just thought he would be sharing it with Westbrook and, until last fall, James Harden.
The Thunder thought it had put the Harden trade behind them during the regular season when it rolled to 60 wins and the top seed in the Western Conference.
Durant and Westbrook expanded their games this season, Kevin Martin proved to be a reliable sixth man, and you could bask in the promise of what Jeremy Lamb and whomever the future lottery pick (from Toronto) OKC got in the deal would become.
But with Westbrook out, the loss of Harden hurts again.
Yes, he wasn't the same player for the Thunder that he became for Houston this season. He grew into the larger role the Rockets gave him. He was just a sixth man for the Thunder.
But what Harden did in Houston this season proved that he would have been able to step into the void left by Westbrook's absence.
He could go from sixth man to second-leading scorer. Martin can't. Or at least he hasn't been able to yet.
Martin can approximate a good Harden, not a good Westbrook. He's averaging 15.5 points on 40.7 percent shooting against the Grizzlies. Harden averaged 16.3 points a game on 43.5 percent shooting in the playoffs last year.
Harden could have done a good Westbrook. Durant wouldn't have to be scoring 34 percent of the Thunder's points or scoring off unassisted plays (essentially a measure of creating his own shots) 76 percent of the time, as he has done since Westbrook's injury.
But these are alternate realities. There's no time to dwell in them. There is still time to change the current situation.
As bad as things look, they will look a whole lot better with a win in Game 5. The longer the series goes, the more time the Thunder have to adjust to life without Westbrook.
That's the hope now. Extend and adjust. Play another day.
"Kevin's led us to places that a lot of people didn't think we could get to as quickly as we have," Brooks said. "This is another opportunity for him to lead us.
"One thing about Kevin: He's going to come back and give you everything he has. He's not an excuse guy. He's not going to blame anyone. He's going to put the pressure on himself to perform every night, and that's what makes us such a good team, because of that attitude that he has."
Durant will do as much as he can. He just can't do it all.