DALLAS – For a player toe-deep into what should be a colossal and potential Hall of Fame career, Thunder forward Kevin Durant has already piled up plenty to be proud of.
Back-to-back scoring titles, All-Star and All-NBA honors, a Rookie of the Year award, international acclaim (and a gold medal) and universal appeal as a breath of fresh air for fans and observers alike.
Yet his stumbles down the stretch in games during these Western Conference finals has suddenly cast a different light on him.
Suddenly, people are questioning his abilities as a finisher and as a leader. Some are suggesting that the 22-year-old Durant, as good as he is right now and could be in the future, is not yet the superstar he’s been made out to be.
This is, mind you, Durant’s first foray into the pressure cooker that is the conference finals. Had he mastered the moment at his young age we’d need to require a DNA sample to make sure he’s human. We understand here at the hideout (we’re a Western Conference finals mobile-command unit right now) that this is a part of the process.
So too does Durant’s first NBA coach, P.J. Carlesimo. He offers up an interesting defense of Durant, via my main man Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger, who offers up his own (and quite interesting) take on Durant’s current predicament:
Yes, he is a brilliant scorer. He is a brilliant passer. By all accounts he wants to be great. But his effort and his IQ have yet to catch up to his talent, and because of this there are gaps in his game that make you (okay, us) want to strangle him.
He doesn’t do some fundamental things well, such as box out or move without the ball. He’s not ready to lead a champion. And as is the case with Russell Westbrook, he just doesn’t have the poise, the patience or the shot selection to take the next — and hardest — step. Yet.
But the way people talk about him, he’s already been placed in the pantheon, and that’s the part we don’t get.
Not that we’re rigidly against hearing a counterpoint.
“I disagree,” said P.J. Carlesimo, who coached Durant for the first 92 games of his career. “And the disclaimer is, I haven’t had him for two-and-a-half years. But he deserves to be ranked on the highest level, because you’ll find very few kids who have ever put a franchise on his back at this age and carried it as far as this kid has carried that team.”
That is the very reason we’re willing to give Durant a pass right now. This is more than any young player is ready to deal with at this point of his career.
We’re not completely absolving him of his mistakes: the turnovers, the bad shots and the poor decisions. But these are missteps that you have to make and then learn from in order to take that next crucial step in your development as a true superstar.
When Durant showed up at the podium to face the heat after that Game 4 meltdown, it was clear that he understands this as well. Another point Carlesimo agrees with:
“Here’s what separates him from others, though,” Carlesimo said. “He took the heat last night, and I guarantee he was the first guy in the gym this morning. He cares so much, and he’s a no-excuse kid. And he welcomes the pressure. I guarantee you, he’ll become better because of this game.”
“I got bad on him when he took bad shots, but I encouraged him, because even then you had to realize everything — post, midrange, 3s — would be a part of his game,” said Carlesimo.
“But look, young guys have games like this. He’ll get better. This will fuel him. He’ll get completely (ticked) off by this, and he won’t shrink from his responsibility. We haven’t pushed him into that group too soon. You’ll probably find that out tomorrow: I don’t like their chances much now, but I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t come back with a monster game.”
A monster Game 5 from Durant tonight at American Airlines Center might not be enough to save the Thunder. But he can save some face and go a long way in improving his stock with the masses by showing that he’s learned from his own mistakes.