Kevin Durant will spend the day clearing his head, wiping away the tear marks and, mainly, checking on Russell Westbrook to make sure his teammate will be healthy and ready for October so this won’t happen again.
Here’s what he won’t be doing: Hearing and reading about him being a choker.
Durant missed 16 of 21 shots Wednesday in the game that clinched the playoff series for Memphis and sent OKC home for the summer. The game was still up for grabs in the final few seconds, but in the moment of truth, Durant missed a shot and a chance to be a hero — and badly so. The defending conference champions were done in five games, on their home court at that. A few weeks ago, Durant famously whined about how he was fed up finishing second: In the MVP race, in the draft, in the scoring race, to LeBron, in the championship hunt, etc., etc. Well, now he gets to feel how fifth place feels.
Crummy, most likely.
But the issue again: Should Durant catch hell by the way he failed to deliver against Memphis? Anyone who studies the circumstances would say no, he shouldn’t. For two straight games he played all 48 minutes and averaged 46 in the series. That’s a lot of fatigue. Also, the gritty Grizzlies are terrific defensively and they threw everything and everyone at Durant, especially in the closing moments. The real choke artists were his teammates, namely Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin — although to be fair to them, they’re not accustomed to assuming the Westbrook role. We should also mention OKC was nuts for trading James Harden when they did, instead of keeping him until this summer, but we’ve covered that a number of times already.
That said, Durant also happens to be a likeable guy. Smiles a lot. Humble. Approachable. And doesn’t have a long history of grabbing his own throat. So yeah, anyone who takes him to task for losing to the Grizzlies is either heartless or not paying attention. Or both.
Durant isn’t LeBron, and Lord knows the reaction if the roles were reversed and the King came up short like that. Twitter might shut down.
It’s all about perception, really, when it comes to who we choose to love or hate, elevate to hero or goat, crucify or hand out a pass. When LeBron failed against the Mavericks two years ago in the Finals, he was leveled by popular public opinion. You know, LeChoke and all that. It didn’t help that (a) Miami was the favorite in that series, (b) LeBron had playfully predicted a dynasty the summer before, and (c) the sentiment against the LeBron was still strong in the post-Decision period. Those were all factored into the mix and thought process when the public grabbed a two-by-four and whacked LeBron upside the head for doing what Durant just did.
When you’re a great player like Durant and LeBron, everything changes. The rules are different. The playing field tilts. You aren’t held to the same overall standard as, let’s say, a very good player. Or a scrub. Your “greatness” works unfairly, in a certain regard. You must also have impeccable character, always appear in a good mood, tip generously, pet puppies and sign every single autograph request. That is called earning your “benefit of the doubt,” card — meaning, if your house is in order as the public sees fit beyond the basketball court, then you’ve earned your pass when something goes wrong on the court.
Therefore, Durant won’t have any reason to crawl up into a ball on the sofa for weeks, as LeBron essentially did in 2011.
The good news for LeBron is that the public eventually moved on and directed its anger to someone else, as is usually the case, and he used the experience to improve as a player. He developed a post-up game and had a smashing return: MVP, NBA title, Olympic gold medal and then another MVP. He also went to great lengths to scrub his image clean, although that wouldn’t have mattered if he didn’t win a championship.
Durant will be fine. Westbrook will return and OKC will once again be a force in the West next year, although Durant’s best chance to win a title was probably 2012, before OKC jumped the gun on Harden. We’ll see.
LeBron has no reason to be jealous of Durant about much, because he does own four more MVPs and is leading 1-0 in the championship race. And yet LeBron never did buy himself a pass, the kind that will get Durant through the summer.