By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — With or without miracle healer, if not yet miracle worker Serge Ibaka, the 2014 Oklahoma City Thunder’s postseason, sink or swim, will be owned by Kevin Durant.
The regular-season MVP and scoring champion has yet to sustain such a consistent level of brilliance in these playoffs, shooting just 45.4 percent from the floor despite a league playoff-best 30.1-point scoring average.
He acknowledged that fact the morning of Game 2: “I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done.”
And then the Thunder got thumped by 35 points, 20 more than Durant scored. Danny Green dropped more 3-pointers (seven) than Durant had field goals (six). Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were both plus-32 in 29 minutes. Durant was minus-26 in 29 minutes.
Allow those numbers to sink in.
As badly as Durant needs Thabo Sefolosha to can a jumper, and Caron Butler to come through with more than one 3-pointer since Game 3 against the Clippers, and for Russell Westbrook to stay in control when momentum swings against them, the second-best player on the planet has to show up as such.
LeBron James yielded the MVP to Durant this season, but the Miami Heat’s leader remains No. 1 in grabbing his team by the boot straps. With a squad thinner and more vulnerable than the past two championship versions, with Dwyane Wade playing mostly unspectacularly through the first two rounds and Chris Bosh averaging a pedestrian 13.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg, James has raised his scoring average in the postseason (28.8 ppg) while still shooting a remarkable 56.3 percent from the floor.
He’s increased his free-throw attempts by two a game compared to the regular season and improved his accuracy. He has the Heat now 9-2 in the playoffs, yes, against inferior Eastern competition compared to OKC’s playoff opponents. The Thunder stand 8-7 heading into Sunday night’s massively important Game 3 on their home floor (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
While Ibaka’s two-game absence (so far) has eliminated a lethal pick-and-pop game and robbed OKC of its third-leading scorer and fiercest two-way player against the most dangerous opponent, Durant has struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs. His 3-point percentage of 35.0 percent (39.1 percent in the regular season) has slowly trended up, although he’s 4-for-11 against San Antonio after an 0-for-4 night in Game 2.
After shooting 40 free throws in the last three games against the Clippers, Durant’s managed just nine in two games against the Spurs, and a total of one beyond the first quarter. During the rest of the playoffs, as well as the regular season, he’s averaged more than nine a game.
He’s continually denied that his league-leading 3,121 regular-season minutes (Dallas’ Monta Ellis was second with 3,022) and a playoff-high 648 more (Indiana’s Paul George is second with 619, also in 15 games) has worn him down or flattened his shot.
Game 3 will demand Durant be at his sharpest, both shooting it and play-making to involve and potentially ignite a cast, that when involved, propels an offense that has sagged in Games 1 and 2 to 94.0 points per 100 possessions against a Spurs defense it burned for 110.2 points per 100 possessions in going 4-0 during the regular season.
If Durant, 25, can’t summon that “next level” against the longest-standing Big Three of them all, he’ll swallowed by pre-championship-level LeBron scrutiny.
Durant got an initial dose of it last year, mostly unfairly, when the Thunder’s title hopes were dashed by Westbrook’s first-round knee injury. Durant was bottled up by Memphis in crunch time and he couldn’t get OKC out of the second round.
At each stage of this postseason, Durant has been tested mentally and physically. He showed frustration early against the defense of Tony Allen and the Grizzlies. When the Thunder went down 3-2 to Memphis with Durant going 10-for-24 in Game 5, the “Mr. Unreliable” headline made its appearance the next morning. Durant answered it with consecutive stellar games to move on.
Following three fourth-quarter turnovers in the Game 4 meltdown against the Clippers, Durant responded with a late surge after a rough three quarters in Game 5 to propel an unlikely comeback that prevented a 3-2 deficit heading back to L.A. In the series-clinching Game 6, Durant recovered from another slow start to overwhelm the Clippers and earn a third West finals berth in four seasons.
The Spurs are a near-perfect machine with essentially one flaw that had worked in the Thunder’s favor so often before — difficultly keeping up with super-athletic lineups. Before this series, before Ibaka strained his calf, the Thunder were 10-2 in their previous 12 games against the Spurs.
If Ibaka is capable of playing in Game 3, it will certainly give the Thunder a psychological boost and shore up defensive holes from the first two games in which the Spurs totaled 120 points in the paint.
Game 2 was stunningly lost after Durant checked back in with 6:18 left in the first half. Tim Duncan was at the free-throw line and gave the Spurs a 37-36 lead. A sudden San Antonio surge, which sparked words between Westbrook and Durant heading into a timeout, and the Spurs were up 58-44 going into halftime.
For the Thunder to reverse course in this series as they did in the 2012 West finals when the Spurs also jumped out to a 2-0 lead on their home floor, Durant must answer this call with authority.