By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kevin Durant has to step into a telephone booth and emerge once again as the league’s most efficient scorer. It might be the only way the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder have of toppling the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
Game-to-game consistency has eluded the MVP in the postseason, and now with the team’s defensive stopper and third-leading scorer, Serge Ibaka, sidelined with a calf strain, an already razor-thin margin for error has shrunk.
Durant’s come through with stellar performances when the pressure’s risen highest, in two first-round elimination games against Memphis, and again when the Thunder’s fortunes turned bleak against the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals.
In Games 6 and 7 against Memphis, Durant shot 23-for-41 and was 5-for-11 on 3s (5-for-5 in Game 7 after 0-for-6 in Game 6) and 18-for-21 at the free-throw line. Following his 6-for-22 shooting in Game 5 against the Clippers, a game the Thunder won on the back of a brilliant Russell Westbrook effort, Durant went 12-for-23 (12-for-17 after a 0-for-6 start), 5-for-8 beyond the arc and 10-for-10 at the line in the clinching Game 6.
Across the board throughout the first two rounds, Durant’s MVP shooting percentages are down significantly: 45.3 percent from the floor, 34.8 percent from beyond the arc and 82.5 percent from the free throw line, a number that’s slowly been on the rise.
It won’t be easy against a Spurs defense that has fared decently against Durant this season despite losing all four regular-season games to OKC. The scoring champ averaged 32.0 ppg against the league (on 50.3 percent shooting, 39.1 percent from 3 and 87.3 percent from the free-throw line), but 26.3 ppg against the Spurs on 45.9 percent shooting and 26.3 percent from beyond the arc. The latter figure should be highlighted considering the volume of 3s Durant is taking during the postseason, a slowly decreasing 7.1 per game compared to 6.1 during the regular season.
Ibaka is often a safety valve for Durant when double-teams come at him, but that option no longer exists. Ibaka averaged 14.0 ppg on 46.3 percent shooting against the Spurs this season, plus 11.5 rpg and 16 blocks, his second-highest total among all teams (17 vs. Houston).
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he has to figure out ways to move Durant, who will be guarded tightly by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard among others, and get him into open space.
“It’s always a combination with Kevin,” Brooks said. “We have to continue to move him around and he has to continue to move around himself and get better setups and lower setups and forceful setups.”
Finding Durant some breathing room goes hand-in-hand with what might be his greatest weapon in this series: Free throws.
The regular-season and playoff leader in free-throw attempts, Durant got to the line 10 times or more in just three of the first eight playoff games. In the last five, he’s accomplished that four times, including shooting 40 free throws in the last three games.
Durant’s co-star Westbrook, one of the most aggressive rim attackers in the league, ranks second in the playoffs in free-throw attempts. He took 57 in the six games against the Clippers, and 28 in the last two games.
Only the Clippers have shot more free throws so far in the playoffs than the Thunder’s 357. Of those, Westbrook and Durant have combined for 237, just 40 shy of the entire Spurs team. Getting to the line is the easiest way to score and can help nullify Ibaka’s absence by getting key Spurs into foul trouble.
“KD and Russ are tough enough to guard as it is,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “When they start living on the free throw line … ”
He didn’t finish the thought because, well, he really didn’t need to.