OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Martin was in a deep funk and the pressure, bearing down on him from multiple angles, was starting to crush him.
For one, Martin had sat on the postseason sidelines since 2006 when he was a 23-year-old, third-year scorer for the Sacramento Kings, so his adrenaline raced to overload levels as he started the 2013 playoffs for the title-contending Oklahoma City Thunder. Two games in and Russell Westbrook tears his meniscus and is declared out for the remainder of the playoffs, instantly and drastically altering Martin’s role from a sixth-man spot-up shooter.
His burden, though drove much deeper. He was matched up against his old team, the Houston Rockets, and the first-time All-Star he was traded for, James Harden, a beloved figure during his three seasons with Oklahoma City. Failure here would be personally damaging and very likely make for an abbreviated stay with OKC when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Martin is an unrecognizable 17-for-69 from the field through the first give games, 9-for-32 in the first three games without Westbrook and 1-for-10 in a Game 5 home loss that brought the Rockets from down 3-0 to 3-2 with Game 6 in Houston. Martin seemed zapped of confidence and to be losing the battle against himself.
“I think it was all the above,” Martin said. “I hadn’t been to the playoffs in a while. I didn’t know what to expect when I was 23, I was just a kid and I was out there running around as really the sixth or seventh option on that Sacramento team. And then being in the series with Houston, I got a lot of friends over there and had some good years there. It was just an emotional series all the way around.”
Then came Game 6 on his former home court and Martin sprung to life. He started becoming aggressive, becoming playmaker again, slashing, cutting, driving off the dribble, getting to the rim and the free throw line. He dropped 25 points on Houston as the Thunder surged ahead in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to move into the semifinals.
On Sunday, Martin did it again, scoring 25 points to help the Thunder to a 1-0 lead in their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Consider the difference: In the first five games against Houston, Martin made just five field goals and went to the free throw line 17 times. In the last two games, he has nine field goals (15-for-27 overall and 6-for-10 beyond the arc) plus 15 free throw attempts. He’s getting in the paint and making the opposition pay.
“Throughout the year I knew my role, I had to be that third-leading scorer beside K.D. [Kevin Durant] and Russ,” Martin said. “And now I need to be that second option. That’s just what the team needs out of me and that’s what I’ll do.”
Martin’s Game 1 production — 8-for-14 from the field, 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 6-for-7 from the free throw line — will force Memphis coach Lionel Hollins to reassess his decision to largely allow Martin to roam without defensive specialist Tony Allen guarding him.
Allen played less than 21 minutes in Game 1 and fewer than seven minutes came with Martin on the floor. And during a three-minute stint in the second quarter when Martin scored 15 of OKC’s 33 points, he burned Allen backdoor for an and-1 layup and then buried a 3-pointer.
During the season with Westbrook in the lineup, Martin’s shooting often told the story of OKC’s outcomes. When he scored in double-digits, the Thunder largely won. And when he didn’t, they struggled, particularly against playoff teams. Now it’s a question of consistency. Martin won’t average 25 points as he has in the last two games, but for OKC to beat Memphis — and beyond — he must continue to be a multidimensional playmaker and shoot at a high percentage.
“We want him to move. He’s our best mover,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “We don’t run an offense for him to stand around in the corner, but he has to do that at times because we have some other dynamic players. But I thought his effort, moving and cutting and allowing himself to get easy shots and get to the free throw line, that’s his game.”