OKLAHOMA CITY – This wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Not this game. Not this series. Not this postseason. Kevin Durant’s historic offensive regular season came to a cringing, clanging conclusion Wednesday night, smothered for a fourth consecutive game by a focused Memphis Grizzlies defense.
Only the sixth player in NBA history to finish a season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from 3-point range and 90 from the free-throw line, Durant went down like this: 5-for-21, 0-for-4 and 11-for-15. Even his auto-dial free throws betrayed him in this series, 13 alone failing to go down in the final three games, likely flattened by fatigue as he played all 48 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 and 229 of 245 in all, and swarmed by defenders to the bitter end.
His first six shots failed to drop in the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder’s 88-84 defeat, just like his last one with 4.9 seconds left. It was a good look from 16 feet away, the kind he makes in his sleep, but this one caught a chunk of rim and had no prayer of rolling through like the mesmerizing, high-bouncing 3 that beat the Rockets in Game 3, the first game OKC played without Russell Westbrook.
And so there will be no Finals return. No revenge matchup against the Miami Heat. And for Durant, at least, there is no remorse, no regret.
“I gave all I have for my team. I left it all out there on the floor,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, kept being aggressive, and that’s all I could ask for. It is what it is. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time. It’s something we’ve got to embrace and get better from. It’s tough to lose your last game in the playoffs so you’ve just got to move on.”
On the other side, Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph came up large in the biggest game of his career. He went to work in the low post early and finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. He missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds to go to leave the door cracked for the Thunder’s late surge that closed an 80-70 deficit to 86-84 and a fifth consecutive game that came down to the wire.
But Durant and the Thunder again couldn’t close. He went 1-for-5 from the floor in the fourth quarter for two points. He committed three of his seven turnovers, a total that surpassed both his field goals (five) and assists (six). The Grizzlies move on to the franchise’s first Western Conference finals against either San Antonio or Golden State.
Dejected, Durant stopped on the floor before heading into the tunnel. The sellout crowd at Chesapeake Arena, most still having stuck around, applauded their superstar and chanted “O-K-C,” seeming to express the same sentiment as Durant’s coach, Scott Brooks, did after the game.
“I love Kevin,” Brooks said. “He’s put this team in a position a lot of people respect with how he conducts himself, how he approaches the game every day in practice. You’re not going to make every shot. You’re going to have a couple of [bad] games and sometimes you’re going to have them in a row. But that’s one thing about KD, he’s not an excuse guy and that’s what our organization is about.”
Durant’s fourth-quarter misfires in Games 2 through 5 were indeed jaw-dropping from a player who had routinely become so clutch he seemed automatic. But starting with the final three minutes of Game 2, when NBA All-Defensive First Team member Tony Allen took on guarding the three-time scoring champ, Durant went an inexplicable 4-for-25 in the fourth quarters, plus the Game 4 overtime.
“Every one of these games came down to the last few minutes,” Durant said. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t come out on the winning side except for once. Like I said, down the line we are going to look back on this and really appreciate it. Sometimes you’ve got to ride out some storms to get to sunshine.”
As this series unfolded, with Durant missing shots and the Thunder falling further behind, the predictable criticism of Durant began. Comparisons to LeBron James’ fold job in the 2010 East final with Cleveland and his mysterious disappearance during the fourth quarters of The 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks were prematurely and wrongly being lowered onto Durant’s shoulders.
The truth is there is no comparison to be made. The Thunder were dealt a crippling blow when Westbrook tore cartilage in his right knee and required surgery that would knock him out for duration. On the fly, OKC had to adjust two games into the first round. Durant never shied from the pressure, he simply didn’t make his shots.
He got OKC by Houston in six games, but the Grizzlies, a top-three defensive team boasting three All-Defensive Teamers and the Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, made life too difficult. Consider that second-year man Reggie Jackson, the third-string point guard when the season started, was the Thunder’s second-best player in the series behind Durant.
A team that averaged 105.7 points in the regular season managed just 89.6 against the Grizzlies, a deficiency that reveals Westbrooks’s immense impact and the burden placed on Durant. Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher provided little spark offensively. Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison added even less.
“He played 48 minutes and I thought he really wanted to carry his team back home,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of Durant. “He was trying to get a win tonight and he came out really trying. Throughout the course of the series we just tried to put pressure on him and keep fresh bodies on him. They had to play him and he had to be the go-to-guy and we knew that, and we just tried to make him work for everything.”
And work he did until with just a few minutes left, he bent over, tugged at his short bottoms and stared at the floor. One could only gather he was already plotting his return next season, when he and Westbrook will return with greater motivation and again as one of the West’s top contenders.
“I have peace because this is when we really had to come together,” Durant said. “You really seen us grow as a group. The only way I’d be frustrated is if we came in here with attitude because Russ is out or we missed shots or we lost the game, and nobody did that. We kept our spirits up. We were always positive and that was the best part about it. No matter how you lose, you couldn’t ask for nothing else man.
“These guys, I love playing with them. Some days you come in and you get upset with each other, that’s just life. But at the end of the day I love all those guys, we all love each other and it was a joy fighting with each other, this playoff run, this whole season. So it wasn’t frustrating. Of course it was a little tougher than usual, but we made the best out of it.”