By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS – During their 2011 Western Conference finals matchup, Dirk Nowitzki called Kevin Durant the future of the league. Three years later, the Thunder superstar is the runaway leader to win his first MVP award.
But he’s been scuffling so far in the first round and the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, seeking a return to the NBA Finals for a second time in three seasons, find themselves in a dogfight against the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. After Durant scored just 15 points on 5-for-21 shooting (1-for-7 from beyond the arc) in Saturday’s 92-89 overtime win, OKC is fortunate to be going home tied 2-2 for Tuesday’s Game 5 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
About a month ago, Durant said Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are his favorite players in the league. He lauded Nowitzki for his humble, low-key style and said he studies Nowitzki’s moves and his training regimen. However, there’s one Nowitzki footstep Durant doesn’t want to follow.
In May 2007, with top-seeded Dallas knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by upstart Golden State, Nowitzki gritted his teeth through an uncomfortable and admittedly depressing MVP ceremony.
“I’ll still look back once my career is over [and think] it’s unbelievable that I won the MVP coming over from Germany,” Nowitzki said Sunday afternoon, one day after the surprising Mavs took a 2-1 lead over the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs. “But in the back of my mind it will probably always be connected to the first-round loss because I think we had a great chance that year.”
Durant has yet to find a rhythm against Tony Allen and the Memphis defense. He’s 40-for-101 (39.6 percent) from the floor and 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Those figures are way off his season marks of 50.3 percent and 39.1 percent.
His slump actually started after his Michael Jordan-eclipsing streak of scoring 25 points or more in 41 consecutive games ended on April 8. In the final five regular-season games, Durant went 54-for-124 overall (43.5 percent) and 7-for-34 from deep (20.5 percent).
His first-round struggles harken back to Nowitzki’s 2007 MVP campaign. He averaged 24.6 ppg and accomplished the rare 50-40-90 trifecta — 50.2 percent shooting overall, 41.6 percent from 3 and 90.4 percent from the free throw line. But in the first round, Nowitzki’s trademark accuracy waned and with it went the Mavs’ hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. Dallas lost to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals.
Nowitzki vs. Warriors (2007) Durant vs. Grizzlies (2014)
FGM-FGA 3M-3A FGM-FGA 3M-3A
Game 1 4-16 0-2 13-25 3-7
Game 2 7-15 0-2 12-28 5-12
Game 3 7-16 0-1 10-27 0-8
Game 4 9-19 2-5 5-21 1-7
Game 5 7-15 2-3 — —
Game 6 2-13 0-6 — —
Total 36-94 4-19 40-101 9-34
(38.3%) (21.1%) (39.6%) (26.5%)
“Once you lose in the Finals one time, I think your mindset is always anything but the Finals is a disappointment,” Nowitzki said. “The pressure’s high, but I think that’s what we compete for; we don’t compete [to] not make the playoffs, so yeah, we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform.
“I think he’ll snap out of it, I really do. That was a big win for them [Saturday] night. I watched the fourth quarter and they were able to come back. Now they’ve got two home games, so I think they’ll be OK.”
Durant’s miserable Game 4, which wasn’t helped by slumping point guard Russell Westbrook also scoring 15 points on 6-for-24 shooting, nearly put the Thunder in a 3-1 hole, just as Nowitzki and the Mavs found themselves seven seasons ago. Reggie Jackson‘s 32-point effort evened the series and breathed new life into the Thunder’s championship hopes.
“We felt if we get through the first round [in 2007] we would have had a great chance to compete for a championship again,” Nowitzki said. “So, yeah, it’s a little of mixed feelings, always. I think, honestly, it helped me later on in ’11 be the closer that I was.”
As Nowitzki knows, title chances are fleeting, and unpredictable. Dallas didn’t get beyond the second round again until that 2010-11 season, when Nowitzki put it all together and led the Mavs to the franchise’s lone title.
Footsteps Durant would just as soon skip.