By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — Truth is the regular-season MVP rarely winds up holding the only trophy that matters when all is said and done.
LeBron James’ conversion of consecutive MVPs into back-to-back NBA championships (and two NBA Finals MVPs) is the outlier. Since the turn of the century only two other MVPs have turned the title trick — Tim Duncan in 2003 and Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Kobe Bryant in 2008 and Allen Iverson in 2001 are the only other MVPs to even get their teams into the Finals.
Perhaps that’s why when Russell Westbrook stepped to the free throw line with 6.4 seconds left in the pivotal Game 5 Tuesday night with a chance to give Oklahoma City the lead if he could make all three attempts, the 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant couldn’t watch.
In football, players on the sidelines will look away, cover their eyes or turn around during a last-second field goal. Baseball players in the dugout will bury their faces in their caps.
Durant did all he could think to do. He headed all the way to the other end of the floor and plopped down in the corner of the court, knees raised, his long arms draped across them, his back facing Westbrook. The Thunder point guard sank one, two three free throws, Durant knowing by the roar of the crowd, for a 105-104 lead that would stand and give OKC a 3-2 lead as the series shifts back to Los Angeles for Thursday night’s Game 6 (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Had Westbrook not capped an individually brilliant night of 38 points and six assists with those three free throws, had he not made the steal of the series only 10 seconds earlier, swiping the ball from Clippers point guard Chris Paul, typically as secure as a Brinks truck, the MVP would find himself, just as he did in the first round down 3-2 to Memphis, one loss from elimination and a summer of scrutiny.
Durant unraveled under defensive pressure in OKC’s Game 4 collapse and it carried over into Game 5. He was having the worst shooting performance of his 66-game playoff career, just 3-for-17 with the clock ticking under four minutes to go and the Clippers’ lead back up to 13 at 101-88.
“Yes, that was definitely frustrating,” Durant said. “I was missing some shots I felt good about, but that’s how the game goes from time to time. I just try to stick with it though and come through for my team.”
“I just tell him great players can have a bad shooting night, but have a great three minutes and be the superstar they are,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “And that’s what he had, three big baskets down the stretch and made big plays defensively. I thought he hung in there. There are some times when he may think nothing was going to happen right for him, but he hung in there.”
Durant hit two massive 3-pointers in the final 3:23 and scored eight of his 27 points during the Thunder’s 17-3 finishing kick.
And now it’s Paul’s turn to regroup after a five-turnover, late-game fade or face, for really the first time in his nine-year career, questions why he can’t seal the deal. Paul is almost universally recognized throughout the league as the game’s best point guard (although Stephen Curry beat him out in fan voting as the All-Star starter), yet this is only Paul’s third venture into the second round and he has never advanced to a conference final.
But unlike James before he won his first of two championships with Miami in 2012, or Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony or even now Durant and Westbrook, Paul has mostly eluded the scrutiny, his good-natured personality off the floor and point-god status on it steering him clear of postseason criticism.
If the Clippers fail to advance this time with their best, and healthiest, team in Paul’s three seasons, plus led by pedigreed coach Doc Rivers, Paul’s free pass will likely now include an expiration date.
The playoffs are where reputations are cemented and legacies born. This series, wild and unpredictable, has tested the mettle of two emotional teams that finished 1-2 during the regular season in technical fouls.
Westbrook, the Thunder’s highly charged point guard, who arguably absorbs more criticism than any player still in the playoffs, stands at the top of that list and, in the process, is beginning to redefine his reputation away from a reckless, IQ-challenged point guard.
He has elevated his game, blowing away his All-Star worthy regular-season numbers and giving OKC a facilitator when it needs him to be (8.2 per game against the Clippers), a relentless scorer when it needs him to be (29.6 ppg), a defensive force and the best rebounding guard in the postseason, averaging 8.4 a game.
Who figured Westbrook to be shooting 52.6 percent overall and 40.9 percent from beyond the arc in this series while Durant is a far more pedestrian 45.9 percent and 32.3 percent?
In the first two rounds, Westbrook has three triple-doubles in 12 games. No other player has one. He has four 30-point games. He has five games of double-digit rebounds and four games of double-digit assists, plus two more with eight in each.
“One thing I love about Russell, he competes every single night and he plays for his team every single night,” Brooks said. “He doesn’t get involved in all the things that are said about him, and why should he? You can’t win over everybody. As long as you can win over your teammates, that’s the respect that every player wants.”