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Holding Court: ‘Mr Unreliable’ carries OKC back into series win

Bert A. Ramirez
Reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant finally found his groove in Game 7 of the Memphis series, but can he continue to carry the Thunder as the playoffs heat up?

 

MR. RELIABLE. Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant reacts after a basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during Game 7. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA

Kevin Durant had to shake off the cobwebs just like any athlete has at certain points in his career. The league’s projected MVP this season – whose struggles through the first 5 games of Oklahoma City’s first-round series with Memphis led the hometown daily The Oklahoman to dub him “Mr. Unreliable” – broke out of a slump to lead the Thunder back from a 3-2 series deficit and into the next round with a tough, 7-game victory over the Grizzlies.

Durant denied that the headline that drew flak from many sectors provided him extra motivation, but if that were the case, that certainly made for great coincidence. He dropped 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in OKC’s 104-84 win in Memphis that sent the series back to Oklahoma City for a winner-take-all showdown. It was a victory so one-sided it riled the Grizzlies’ top scorer Zach Randolph into punching Thunder second-string center Steven Adams in the jaw with barely half a quarter left, automatically earning for the 6-foot-9 forward a suspension in that crucial duel. 

With Randolph nowhere near the sold-out Chesapeake Energy Arena for Game 7, Durant helped finish the job with a game-high 33 points, making 12 of 18 floor shots, including all 5 from beyond the arc, as the Thunder overwhelmed the Grizzlies with a thunderous second-half run to win 120-109.

In basketball terms, the Thunder’s comeback after losing homecourt advantage to the seventh-seeded Grizzlies with a Game 2 overtime loss – the first of 4 straight overtime games this series produced, plus another defeat in Game 5 – is understandable enough. The Grizzlies threw at the Thunder one of the toughest defensive covers with such defensive aces as Tony Allen (who some said got into Durant’s head the way he did in the past to LeBron James while still with the Boston Celtics), Marc Gasol, and Tayshaun Prince.

On offense, the Grizzlies tried to counter the Thunder’s faster pace with a grind-it-out style that capitalized on the post game of Randolph and Gasol. With both Durant and Russell Westbrook shooting below 40% in the first 5 games, OKC failed to execute its normal offense, particularly with Westbrook tending to dominate the ball a little too much instead of trying to get Durant into his rhythm.  

In that Game 5 loss, for instance, Durant, the league’s leading scorer for the fourth time in 5 years, failed to have any touches in seven straight Thunder possessions, not the way to help him out of his slump, much less churn out a win for the team.  Westbrook had a triple-double in this match, but he shot just 10-of-31 from the floor (Durant was 10-of-24) and was out of control at times that he did the Thunder more harm than good in a game, where OKC had to climb out of a 20-point deficit in the third quarter just to force OT.  This was the game where KD missed a potential tying free shot with 27.9 seconds to go when Joey Crawford took the ball away from him just as he was about to take his second freebie and eventually missed, and where he flubbed a game-winning 3-point attempt that was followed up by Serge Ibaka a little too late.

It was at this point where that “Mr. Unreliable” headline came out and became a cause célèbre.  The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel wrote about Durant’s playoff woes to that point on May 1, but what caused a furor was someone giving the piece that the controversial headline that didn’t sit well with practically the whole country.

James, for one, came to his potential successor’s defense, saying such an irreverent treatment from his hometown paper should give Durant pause and the motivation to try free agency when his current contract expires in 2016. “KD got to be a free agent at some point,” James said.  It was in context of all he’s done for the team and the city, according to Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick.

But Durant, true to his low-key personality and apparently aware of the burden a franchise star normally has to shoulder, acknowledged that the hometown paper was correct in its assessment. “That’s what they’re supposed to write,” KD said. “I didn’t come through for the team.” 

He, however, denied that his 36-game explosion in Game 6, which gave Durant the most 35-point playoff games in the league since 2010 with 14 (one more than Kobe Bryant and two more than James), had anything to do with the controversial headline. “I’m not going to give them credit for nothing,” he said. “We were down 3-2.  We needed to win this game.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks agreed with his meal ticket’s statement. “He’s self-motivated,” Brooks said. “He’s a tremendous kid who does everything for his team, for our organization…. He gives everything he has.”

The Oklahoman’s sports editor Mike Sherman later apologized for the “unduly harsh” headline used by his section. “The words were overstated and unduly harsh,” Sherman wrote. “The headline and presentation left the impression that we were commenting on Durant’s season, career or even character.  We were not.  We were referring only to the Memphis series.” 

Durant, of course, has done so much for the city that only has basketball to root for and nothing else, and not only in terms of greatness as a player but as a model citizen. When a tornado hit Oklahoma last year, for example, Durant donated $1 million of his personal money to the victims of the calamity, something Thunder GM Sam Presti pointed out in an uncharacteristic statement he issued apparently to earn some brownie points with his star’s outraged family, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

But Oklahomans are mostly grateful to KD for his basketball exploits, which have made the Thunder an elite team in the league after steadily rising from a 20-62 club in Seattle during his rookie season in 2008.

In the Thunder’s clinching Game 7 victory, he finally exorcised the ghost of the first 5 games with an equally brilliant followup to his dominant performance in the previous contest. Durant was 6-of-7 (86%) for 14 points with Allen as his primary defender after shooting 35 percent with TA guarding him in Games 1-6, and scored a career-high 27 points on shots at least 15 feet away from the basket.

“I got out of my own way,” he said. “I was thinking too much. I was worrying about what you guys (the media) were saying. I was worrying about what shots I was going to shoot throughout a game. I was thinking too much, and the game of basketball is played off of instincts.”

Westbrook, to his credit, had as much to do with the victory himself as he had another triple-double, but this time, it was a productive triple-double as borne out by the 8 assists he gave Durant, part of the playoff career-high 16 he had to go with 27 points and 10 rebounds. That triple-double made him only the second player in NBA history after Boston’s Rajon Rondo to have such a game in two Game 7s.

“I think he chose his spots very well tonight, getting everybody involved, rebounding the basketball,” Durant said. “But when we needed a basket, he was aggressive enough to get to the rim and make his pull-up jump shot.  He just played a full game tonight.”

The greatest vindication, however, would still belong to Durant, and mainly because of a headline that he rightfully refused to use as basis for his redemptive performance but instead as part of an inner drive that makes him the true superstar that he is.

Respected basketball writer Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports said nothing less when he wrote: “When everyone else gave Durant the excuse to play the part of the martyr, to pretend he was somehow unjustly skewered by the ‘Mr. Unreliable’ Oklahoman headline, a sputtering star had never been so stand-up. He had watched LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, watched Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and understood the truth of the matter. He had played poorly and deserved the criticism.  Understand this: If Durant ever bailed on his teammates the way that newspaper’s sports editor did on his staff with a scared, unnecessary and undermining apology, Durant would be rightfully ripped to kingdom come.”

“This is a one-sport town, and he’s the superstar,” veteran Thunder guard Derek Fisher said. “Kevin understands it. He embraces it. The fact everybody else was going crazy over it – family and friends and fans – made it almost enjoyable for him to go out and play that night. As much as anything, it was a reminder that a lot of people cared about him here.

“Kevin wasn’t worried about getting his shot, or his points, he was worried about letting the guys in the locker room down,” Fisher continued. “For him, that was the hardest part. He felt like he was letting guys down as the franchise player, as the leader.

“Every great player goes through it at some point, all of them. There starts to be some doubt. There starts to be criticism all around you. There’s second-guessing.  They all do – and Kevin worked his way right out of it.”

And that’s what could be all the more telling about Durant, a trait that would surely attract hordes of suitors when KD becomes a free agent in two years. Already, the LA Lakers have made some subtle indications of their desire to court Durant.  And who knows what LeBron had in mind when he was making that statement defending his Olympic teammate?

One thing’s sure: The Thunder have to win an NBA title in the next two years to have the leverage to keep Durant, and that first-round victory over Memphis, they hope, will be the first step towards that goal.

Pacers rediscover identity

The Indiana Pacers rediscovered their identity in surviving their first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks in 7 games, beating the overachieving Hawks in the deciding game Game 7 at home 92-80 after forcing that game with a 95-88 victory on the road two days earlier.

That Game 6 triumph didn’t have the assurance and decisiveness of the clinching contest, however. Up until the last three minutes, the Pacers’ fate, which at that point was the greater focus rather than the home-standing Hawks’ given the former’s No. 1 seeding against the only playoff team with a losing record, was still up in the air.  It took David West’s heroics that saw him score 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and a 16-4 closing push that bailed out Indy into extending the series to a seventh and final contest.

There was no such uncertainty in Game 7, however, despite the Hawks cutting down a once-formidable 17-point cushion erected by Indiana midway through the third quarter to 8 points going into the payoff period. And it was mainly because Paul George may have signaled his arrival as a legitimate superstar with his playoff-leading sixth double-double, scoring a playoff career-high 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds while collecting 3 assists and two steals.

When the Hawks, despite missing 33 of a playoff-record 44 3-point attempts, pared Indiana’s lead to 8 twice late in the third quarter, it was the 6-9 George who scored 6 points in a 9-1 run at the start of the fourth quarter to snuff that rally out. The lead would never go below 10 again.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and Charlotte top man Al Jefferson concurred with the assessment that George has finally arrived as one of the game’s elite players, being mainly responsible for Indiana’s avoiding the dubious distinction of becoming the sixth top-seeded team in history to fall to a No. 8 seed. The 1994 Seattle SuperSonics, the 1999 Miami Heat, the 2007 Dallas Mavericks, the 2011 San Antonio Spurs and the 2012 Chicago Bulls (then missing an injured Derrick Rose) were each seeded first but all went down to their eighth-seeded opponents.

Both Thomas and Jefferson opined that a star first has to go through adversity and come out of it stronger to become a real superstar, saying that George has proven equal to the challenge in this series. The 24-year-old All-Star, Pacers president Larry Bird’s own showcase for his eye for talent after plucking him out as a virtual unknown from Fresno State, had help this time though from 7-2 center Roy Hibbert.  Hibbert was all but a factor in the first 6 games with 4.0-point and 3.2-rebound averages, but the missing big man finally showed up in the deciding contest, scoring 13 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and blocking 5 shots in 31 minutes as the Pacers set a club playoff record with 13 blocks. Lance Stephenson also had a double-double with 19 points, a team-high 14 boards and five assists while George Hill had 15 points and West just had four but had 13 caroms as the Pacers went back to capitalizing on their size advantage, crushing Atlanta off the boards 55-38.  

If anything, this should remind Indiana of its real identity as it moves farther along in the postseason.

Net experience prevails

It was experience vs. athletic skills from the start, and once again, the Brooklyn Nets proved that the former trumps the latter more often than not, edging the Toronto Raptors in the seventh and deciding game of their series at the latter’s homecourt no less 104-103. The Nets brought former Boston Celtic All-Stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Big Apple precisely for that, and the ploy did not disappoint, at least to this stage. This is notwithstanding the absence for all but 17 games of the season of one-time All-Star center Brook Lopez, who sustained a right foot fracture and severe left ankle sprains and underwent surgeries there earlier this year.  With the 7-foot Lopez in there, the Nets, who have the highest payroll in the league at $193 million, including luxury tax, would have been one of the favorites; without him, they’re just battling to move as far as they can.

Pierce, on a day when he had trouble finding his shot (10 points, 4-of-10 shooting), turned to one underrated part of his game, blocking a potential winning basket in the lane by Kyle Lowry as time expired to preserve the Nets’ one-point victory and move into the next round against two-time defending champion Miami.  

The Nets had control of the contest almost all throughout, leading by 12 several times in the third quarter and by 10 midway through the fourth period, thanks to Joe Johnson, who topscored for the Nets with 26 points.  But the Raptors made it close in the last one minute, turning it into a one-possession game on four straight free throws by Patrick Patterson and Lowry.  And when the Nets had the chance to bring it back into a two-possession ballgame, Deron Williams, the hero of Brooklyn’s series-tying 97-83 victory in Game 6 with 23 points despite a sprained left ankle, missed a free throw as he did in a previous trip to the line.  That left the Nets with a 102-99 lead with under 20 seconds remaining, an edge that was reduced to one on a Lowry drive, time down to 16 seconds. 

What happened after Shaun Livingston and Terrence Ross made it 104-103 with eight seconds left was the sequence that put the experience-vs.-athleticism question on the line.  After a botched inbound that left six seconds on the game clock and a large Toronto crowd watching on the big screen outside the Air Canada Centre roaring, the Raptors put their season in the hands of Lowry.  The slippery guard then drove in, bubbled the ball as he went past two defenders before recovering and lofting the shot that could have won it – if Pierce did not send it back as Lowry lay there on the floor while the Nets swarmed the court in celebration.

“I really didn’t have a great offensive game,” Pierce said.  “I was in foul trouble for most of the night.  Sometimes you’ve got to find ways to help your ballclub win.”

“Paul said it best, that’s why he’s here, to make plays,” said Kidd, the first among 19 rookie head coaches to win a Game 7 on the road.  “He didn’t have a great game, but it only takes one play to help a team win and that’s what he did tonight.”

And the other half of that veteran duo brought from Boston?  Garnett had 12 points and 11 rebounds, his 86th double-double in the playoffs, second only to San Antonio counterpart Tim Duncan’s 152 among active players.

Now, Brooklyn hopes that same savvy and experience will give it at least a decent shot against the Heat, whom they beat in all four confrontations in the regular wars, the only team in Miami’s Big Three era to pull it off.

Overpowering Spurs

Now, here’s another pair of conflicting philosophies in the matchup between San Antonio and Dallas, one of a record five first-round matchups to go the full seven games in this year’s playoffs: a well-balanced team system vs. the star system.  Of course, the Spurs’ system proved to be superior in the end as Tim Duncan and company beat the Mavericks in such an overpowering fashion 119-96 one wonders how this series took a Game 7 to produce a winner.

Well, the answer is that the team that’s employing the star system has to be clicking on all cylinders to be effective, and unfortunately, Monta Ellis, the Spurs’ most difficult matchup in the series, chose the deciding match to go on a funk.  Ellis, who averaged a team-high 21.8 points in the first six games, scored all of just 12 points and shot a mere 3-of-11 from the floor to all but hand it to the Spurs on a silver platter.  It was so unlike his whirling dervish self in Game 6, where the 6-3 playmaker scored 12 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead three-pointer with five minutes left, to lead a come-from-behind 113-111 win for the Mavs that forced the decider.

In this deciding contest, however, it was another playmaker, Tony Parker, who came to play.  The 6-2 Parker, probably the greatest player his native France has produced in the same way that another third of the Spurs’ veteran Big Three, Manu Ginobili, may be the greatest Argentina has churned out, scored a game-high 32 points built on 11-for-19 floor shooting and 10-of-13 from the line.

This was no contest from the time Parker sparked the Spurs to several 10-point leads in the first quarter.  The lead ballooned to as many as 29 points with two minutes left in the first half, and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle admitted his team was hit by a “tidal wave” early and just could not respond.

The Spurs, meanwhile, got a good all-around effort from everybody, with Ginobili scoring 20 points, Danny Green, last year’s finals sensation with a finals record 27 made three-pointers, coming alive with 16, Duncan and Kawhi Leonard each with 15 with Tim adding eight rebounds and two blocks, and Boris Diaw chipping in eight points, seven rebounds and five assists.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged the problems Dallas unexpectedly gave his club.  “On the court what confounded us was that they’ve got shooters all the way around,” Popovich said.  “Dirk Nowitzki gets a crowd, if you double him you, you leave a lot of other open shooters.  So we played him pretty much one-on-one, so we could stay at home a little bit better.  That and the ability to shoot it; spread the floor, run the sets that Rick does and the speed of Harris and Ellis was tough for us to handle.”

Not on this day though, and San Antonio now faces Portland, the team that upset a higher seed, Houston, over the weekend and so can no longer surprise the Spurs the way these Mavs did.

Clips oust Warriors in shootout

It was a shootout in more ways than one, in this Game 7 and through most of the series, which arguably was the best of all the first-rounders this year.  And the Clippers predictably prevailed on the strength of their collective desire to emerge triumphant following one of the most emotional chapters in franchise history and the fact that the Warriors were not playing with a full complement with starting center Andrew Bogut sidelined with a rib injury.

That the Clips did advance represents some of the most cathartic moments in franchise annals as coach Doc Rivers and stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and this bunch of Hollywood City Johnnys-come-lately had to endure the racist comments of the man giving them all those money, houses, clothes and God knows whatever Donald Sterling thinks and believes his workers owe him.  Well, these Clippers effectively owe him nothing, according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and thus these Clips triumphed both on and off the court when all is said and done. 

But wait, this series also deserves to be rated highly both on competitive and artistic merits.  Four of the seven contests were decided by five points or less, and the games featured some of the best outside shooting and athletic aerial displays recently witnessed.  In the deciding Game 7 alone, neither team could get a lock on the victory, going back and forth until Paul, who endured a painful hamstring injury to score 22 points and hand off 14 assists, Griffin, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan combined in the closing minutes to finally put the Clips on top to stay.  When Draymond Green hit a three-pointer that rattled in for the Warriors’ final stand at 120-118, time down to 14 seconds, the Clips made six straight free throws to seal the contest.

“I just thought with all this stuff, this team just needed this win,” an emotional Rivers said.  “This was a hard week.  It feels like two months.  I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer, and be proud of something.  And I was very proud of my players.”

“It’s been a crazy ride for us,” said the 6-11 Jordan, who had 15 points and 18 rebounds as he set a new franchise record in rebounds and blocked shots in a playoff series, breaking Bob McAdoo’s old record of 94 with 106 rebounds and totaling 28 blocks.  “I commend our guys for sticking with it.  It’s been a roller coaster, but we came out and had a job to do, and we did it.”

It was just the Clippers franchise’s third playoff series win in 38 years.  The Clips are hoping it will be quickly followed by another as they cross swords in the next round with the OKC Thunder.  Again, they have to do it the hard way though as the Thunder, seeded second, own the homecourt edge.

Other playoff notes

Two teams that lost the first two games at home – Chicago and Houston – deservedly got the boot, although the Bulls were dispatched in just five games by the Washington Wizards and the Rockets took six games to get the pink slip.  This is understandable though as the Bulls’ talent level cannot compare with the Rockets’ with Derrick Rose still sidelined.  The Rockets, in fact, could have gotten a reprieve had Damian Lillard not sunk a three-pointer with nine-tenths of a second left that clinched Game 6 at home.  That shot broke the Rockets’ hearts as they had a two-point lead with that little time left and still lost 99-98.

According to some discerning observers, however, the Rockets could have saved themselves the heartache had GM Daryl Morey agreed to a deal with the Boston Celtics last December that would have sent a then-disenchanted Omer Asik to Boston for Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and a 2015 first-round draft pick obtained from the Clippers as compensation for the Celtics’ allowing Doc Rivers to get out of his contract and coach the Clippers.  Morey, a former Celtics front-office executive himself, eventually decided against the trade when Boston refused to give one of its 2014 first-round picks, which Morey tried to haggle for in place of the Clippers’ pick.

Listen to semioticus of Celtics Life:

“(The) Houston Rockets have exhaustively fielded seven players against the Blazers, and the eighth guy in rotation was a D-leaguer (Troy Daniels) known by no one before Game 3, except for probably hardcore basketball enthusiasts and Rockets fans themselves.  Oh, and one of their stars is a terrible defender.  Oh, and their two best interior defenders can’t coexist because they can’t shoot, like, really can’t.  But yeah, they had to give Omer Asik increasing minutes because without him, they couldn’t stop LaMarcus Aldridge, but then when Howard and Asik are both on the floor, James Harden is pretty much rendered useless.  (He shot 37.6 percent from the field, 29.6 percent from downtown in the series.  When Asik and Howard are both on the floor, his offensive rating drops to minus 90.  Spacing is important.)

“You know whom the Rockets could have used?  Some tall above-average defender who could stretch the floor, and being able to shoot free throws would be a plus too.  You know, maybe someone named Brandon Bass, who was able to hold Aldridge to 8-17 shooting (per mysynergysports) in Trail Blazers-Celtics matchups this year?  Or how about Jeff Green at least?  Yeah yeah, I know that hindsight is 20/20, but seriously, what were the Rockets expecting heading into the playoffs?  That Howard would have a 2012 LeBron moment (by the way, he really did his share against Portland, so I won’t blame him)?  That Harden would suddenly become a decent defender?  That Asik would become an effective mid-range shooter?  What was the plan?  Whatever it was, there are a lot of questions on the Rockets’ future, and the answers aren’t gonna come easy.

“There are lessons to be learned for any GM, or for that matter, any basketball fan.  When you think a deal makes sense, you pull the trigger.  Basketball might reward greed, but more often than that, it will punish missed opportunities.

“The Rockets’ GM, ex-Celtic Daryl Morey, outsmarted himself this season, and now he has in his hand an early first-round exit against a Portland team who also has its fair share of defensive issues.  I hope that he will take this as a learning experience and knock on our door with a trade offer that makes sense for both teams and doesn’t require any of them to bend over backwards.” – Rappler.com 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.