Kevin Durant in tough MVP territory
MEMPHIS -- It should have been one of the greatest moments in Dirk Nowitzki's life, a crowning achievement of a long journey to master the game and achieve the highest status among his peers.
Instead, the 2007 Most Valuable Player Award ceremony was melancholy, with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban holding back tears as he introduced his franchise player. Nowitzki received the award a few days after his team had been stunned in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, a group of smaller defenders harassing him with a game plan for which he was unprepared. Unable to shake the Warriors, he ended up playing well below his standard during the series.
Nowitzki was so devastated by the loss and the hollowness of that MVP that he immediately fled to Australia for weeks, ignoring the rest of the NBA playoffs, sleeping in hostels in the Outback and growing a long beard as he mourned. If he could have gotten farther away, he probably would have.
Sometime in the next week or so, Kevin Durant is expected to be named Most Valuable Player, dethroning rival LeBron James after a season-long battle for the award. Durant has been building toward it for years as he has grown alongside his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates. It should be a celebratory moment for him and the franchise, a rare honor that will be attached to his name for the rest of his life.
Durant should be receiving his trophy from commissioner Adam Silver in front of the famously raucous Oklahoma City crowd, not calling his travel agent.
But that is what he's on the cusp of as the Memphis Grizzlies go for their latest high-seed knockout Thursday night in Game 6 against the Thunder, who trail 3-2. And just as the Warriors' strategy neutralized Nowitzki, Durant 's team is failing in large part because he can't execute against a fierce game plan.
"I've just got to stay positive," Durant said after a missed free throw in overtime proved to be the difference in the Grizzlies' 100-99 Game 5 win Tuesday. "I'll figure it out."
This series has been so tight -- four consecutive overtime games. There is no black-and-white delineation between who is the hero and who is the goat, as numerous players have taken turns in those roles.
The Thunder as a team have struggled on offense with the Grizzlies effectively making the game a half-court slog, where their size clogs up the middle and their long-armed defenders can challenge everything on the perimeter. Rookie coach Dave Joerger has drawn up a nice blueprint and his team is executing -- it's not simply about Durant's struggles.
If the series ends this way, though, the loss will be attached to Durant. That is how it goes for an NBA superstar, especially when he has a slump when the pressure is on.
Durant is shooting just 40 percent in the five games, and only 33 percent (15-of-45) in the past two. His averages of 28 points and nine rebounds look pretty on the stat sheet, but watching him struggle and disappear in key moments in the face of the tenacious defense being played by Tony Allen and his supporting cast, including Tayshaun Prince, will endure as the lasting memory.
In 2007, the "We Believe" Warriors and their relentless offense from the likes of Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson stole the show as Nowitzki went down. The style of this series has been different; it's largely been about Durant's issues.
In the past few years, Durant has made the transition from a player with potential to a player with infinite expectation -- and with that evolution comes a boulder that many great ones before him have struggled to carry.
Gone are the days when he would wear a backpack to the postgame news conferences in the playoffs like a college kid stopping by between classes. After the 2012 Western Conference finals, when he carried the Thunder to four straight wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Durant reached a new plateau where he had to deal with a new set of realities.
Last season, because of Russell Westbrook's injury, the demands were tabled and the Thunder's early exit was assigned an asterisk. Now Westbrook is healthy but also struggling. He's shooting just 16-of-55 in the past two games as he and Durant are once again in their uncomfortable tug-of-war over who leads the offense -- that old but undying thorn they have yet to truly overcome.
Durant is having issues solving the defense and battling inconsistency with his jumper. But clouding the matter further is that he's standing by as Westbrook and, at times, Reggie Jackson, hold the team's fate. In Game 4 it worked, as Jackson played the best game of his career, scoring 32 points when Durant went just 5-of-21 shooting.
But the overall image of the presumptive MVP standing to the side at the end of a close playoff game is not something that will age well.
"Sometimes you've got to be a decoy out there," Durant said. "And I'm fine with that."
He almost certainly doesn't feel that way, but this is the good face a star will often wear to avoid causing issues with his teammates. If Durant goes out that way, though, the regrets will linger with him all summer. He may not end up sleeping under the stars in the back of a Jeep at the bottom of the world like Nowitzki did, but wherever Durant lays his head, the failure will eat at him. As it would anyone.
Durant is no decoy. Decoys don't win the MVP and Durant is the MVP, the development of his all-around game and his consistency from November through April earning it over James. If the Thunder lose another game, that MVP trophy is forever going to feel cold to him. If it happens while he's standing in the corner, it will attach itself to him like a tattoo.
"We've got to impose our will from the beginning of the game," Durant said about Game 6. "We've got to be locked in."
Durant needs to take his own advice and impose his will and act like the MVP. It's almost too late.