Always the competitor, listen to what Kevin Durant had to say after his team’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference Finals:
(Via Daily Thunder)
One by one, from DeShawn Stevenson to Dirk Nowitzki to Jason Kidd to Shawn Marion, they each pulled Kevin Durant in close for a parting message. What was said will remain between Durant and each of his opponents. What was said was greeted by a nearly despondent Durant, who was seconds removed from the Thunder’s 100-96 season-ending loss in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
By the time he got to the podium for the post-game press conference, Durant was composed and reflective, complimentary toward his teammates and blunt with his emotions.
“This is a different feeling,” Durant said. “To be honest all of us expected to go far. We had high expectations for us going into this year and we knew we worked hard enough.”
For the second straight game, the Thunder surrendered a late lead against the veteran Mavericks team, who are headed to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. But the Thunder didn’t suffer such a drastic collapse as it did in Game 4. With a smaller, faster lineup on the floor for the better part of the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City did not let the Mavs seize control until the very end.
Durant, who again faced a plethora of defenders, capped his second postseason with 23 points on 8-for-20 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Some might argue that this is a rite of passage for the young superstar and his equally as young teammates, that these hard times are part of the learning process which all budding championship contenders must go through before reaching the summit.
Mistakes were made and lessons will be learned, yet when they’ll be put to good use remains unknown. But if we know anything, it’s that the level-headed Durant and his band-of-brother teammates will want to be quick to apply all of the experiences they’ve gained come the start of next season. They’ve come so far in so little time that it would be unwise to put anything past KD and the Thunder in the not-so-distant future.
Durant, for one, left the floor heartbroken but motivated. Beneath the glum face and slumped shoulders, there was an awareness to the celebration that transpired before him. It’s a desirable place to be. It’s why KD and his teammates play the game.
And it’s why Durant, sitting in that press conference, still exuded a raw competitiveness despite the fact his season was over. As kind-hearted of a person Durant is, and as respectful he is toward his peers, the Thunder captain strives to become synonymous with winning every step of the way. When Durant was asked, deep down inside, if he could feel good for Dirk Nowitzki, who after all these years will make a return trip to the NBA Finals, Durant did not take the high road.
Instead of giving a soundbite for what is sure to become the feel-good story of the Finals, Durant kept it real. He remained true to his feelings and to everything he stands for.
“I’m not happy at all,” Durant deadpanned. “I’m a competitor. I really don’t care what he’s been through the last three or four years…..I’m not happy for him at all because I want to be there. But it happens like that.”
For now, at least.
“I don’t know how soon we’re going to get there,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said of the NBA Finals. “But I can tell you this: guys are not going to hope to get there. They’re going to work to get there….We have a good future if our mindset is in the right place.”
After a first half that saw Durant play as focused and under control as we’ve seen this series, the Dallas Mavericks smothered the league’s two-time leading scorer defensively, double-teaming him and making him the total focal point of their defensive scheme, basically inviting anyone else in an Oklahoma City jersey to step up and take a shot.
Durant was helpless, his teammates couldn’t hit a shot and now the Thunder finds itself on the brink of elimination after a 112-105 Game 4 overtime home loss to the Mavs.
“They played good defense,” Durant said. “We were missing shots. Our youth has nothing to do with it.”
This isn’t about pinning the blame on any one player; the Mavs were the better team and the team that did a better job of exposing its opponents flaws in crunch time.
The Thunder led by 15 points with just under five minutes to play in regulation. That’s when reserve James Harden fouled out and the Mavs upped its intensity in denying Durant any semblance of a decent look at the basket. Dallas outscored the Thunder, 17-2, down the stretch of the fourth quarter to force overtime and come away with its second straight road win.
It was a stark contrast in how the first half went for Durant.
From the very start of Game 4, it was evident what type of mindset Durant had come with. KD never settled. He was in full-on attack mode. After going 0-for-8 from behind the arc in Game 3, he didn’t attempt a three-pointer until the second half on Monday. By halftime, KD had 14 points on 6-for-8 field goals. He attacked the rim, set up his opponent in the post and took high-percentage shots from the perimeter.
When the second half came, the Mavs’ defense, led once again by Shawn Marion, locked in. Durant finished with 29 points on 9-for-22 shooting, 15 rebounds and four assists but nine turnovers.
“The guys that are getting the ball a lot are facing tremendous pressure,” Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said. “Look, we’re game planning like crazy for (Durant).”
Durant and the Thunder got the Mavs’ best shot defensively this series, as Dallas clamped down on the defensive end from the onset to eventually build a 23-point first half lead it would not relinquish despite Oklahoma City’s fourth quarter run.
It didn’t leave Durant speechless or irate, just frustrated. On Monday, the Thunder will have another chance to right itself and even this series at two games apiece.
In order to stop the game’s most consistent scorer, the Mavs knew they’d have to take a different approach to Durant. So they double teamed him off of pick and rolls and post ups, forcing the ball out of his hands. They got him out of his favorite spots by trapping or showing an extra defender. And they did all of this early and often, never allowing Durant or his teammates to settle into a rhythm.
After allowing Durant too much space to operate through the series’ first two games, and after surrendering more than 100 points in each contest to the lightning quick Thunder, the Mavs basically said, “enough is enough.”
“Durant’s a guy that you game plan for in your sleep,” Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s great. I’ve never seen a guy, 6-10, 6-11, do things that he’s done.”
Durant was held to 24 points on 7-for-22 shooting, including 10-for-11 from the foul line, to go with 12 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.
“They did a good job of making it tough for us – give those guys credit,” Durant said. “…We’ve got to adjust and I’m confident we will.”
After closing out Game 2 with Jason Kidd on Durant – and with some success – the Mavs threw veteran Shawn Marion on Durant from the start of Game 3, and when Marion wasn’t shadowing him on the defensive end he was making KD work just as hard on the other end of the floor. Durant was held to just 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting in the first half and the Thunder as a team had shot just 29.4 percent from the field by halftime.
“We were much better tonight defensively and we had to be,” Carlisle said. “The first two games were poor. But tonight we played championship level defense for the first time in the series and now the challenge is to sustain it.”
Kevin Durant was at a point of no return, so the Thunder forward kept elevating. A collision was inevitable yet it seemed like the least of his concerns. It probably didn’t matter who was in Durant’s path at that point. It just so happened to be seven-footer Brendan Haywood, a player known for his grit and reputation as a paint protector.
Durant literally took the challenge head-on. Durant posterized Haywood with one vicious dunk and when KD picked himself up off the floor he looked as if someone had insulted his mother to his face. He even earned a technical foul for taunting.
That emphatic dunk, accompanied by Durant’s display of raw emotion, sent a jolt of energy throughout the rest of his teammates. Oklahoma City was trailing by 11 points with less than two minutes to go in the first quarter shortly before Durant attacked Haywood at the rim. That would serve as an early turning point to the Thunder’s 106-100 win at the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, evening the series at a game apiece as it shifts to Oklahoma City.
Sometimes, all it takes for a shift in momentum is a player of Durant’s caliber making a play that gets you off your seat. It isn’t calculated or premeditated, but when the opportunity presents itself it must be seized. That sequence undoubtedly will be replayed time and again on the highlight reels, and not even a few minutes after it happened ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy already had dubbed it the dunk of the year.
In the grand scheme of things, leaving Dallas with at least one win was the goal for KD and the Thunder, which received steady contributions from its bench (50 points).
This was nowhere near Durant’s 40-point Game 1 scoring barrage but it didn’t need to be because of teammates like James Harden (23 points) and Eric Maynor (13).
Durant finished with a team-high 24 points on 11-for-23 shooting to go with three rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block. Durant deferred to his teammates down the stretch, setting up Harden for a clutch three-pointer before hitting a step-back jumper of his own a few possessions later to give the Thunder a 95-90 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“It shows that guys don’t have to have big, great games to win,” Durant said of his performance. “It’s a team effort and that’s what kind of team we are. It’s about whatever it takes and that’s what we did tonight.”
For Durant, that meant getting others involved and carefully picking his spots. Durant had four points and two assists during a closely played fourth quarter in which the Thunder shot 11-for-17 from the field while holding Dallas to 9-for-22 shooting.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said that prior to the game he hammered home the point of “playing perfect is impossible, but playing hard is possible. You can do that.”
Durant and the Thunder did just that in Game 2.
That the Thunder lost Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, 121-112, on Tuesday was about the only reason why Durant’s play was overshadowed by Nowitzki’s 48-point performance, which included a postseason record for free throws made without a miss (24-for-24).
Durant nearly matched Nowitzki basket for basket throughout the night and continued to be as dependable of a scorer as they come en route to a 40-point effort.
Neither Durant nor Nowitzki needed 20 shot attempts to reach 40 points; Durant shot 10-for-18 from the field, including 18-for-19 shooting at the foul line. Nowitzki shot 12-for-15 from the field.
When talking about Nowitzki’s feat, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said: “There are very few guys in the league who can do that and unfortunately for us the other guy in the league who can is Durant and we’ve got to keep our guard up.”
But this was more than just another scoring barrage from KD.
With just 48 hours rest after wrapping up the conference semifinals with a Game 7 win over Memphis, Durant looked as ready as ever. The Thunder captain made his first six shots from the field, including a 5-for-5, 13-point first quarter. And Durant closed the game with a 13-point fourth quarter, nearly willing the Thunder back from a 16-point deficit.
“Kevin was good offensively,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said. “He had a nice rhythm going and he was attacking the basket and he had his jump shot going. He was making plays.”
Durant played an all-around game on Tuesday, finishing with eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Offensively, just because teammates weren’t able to shoulder some of the scoring load doesn’t mean he plans to change his approach moving forward.
“No matter if they miss 10 shots in a row I’m still going to pass them the ball,” Durant said. “One player, two players are not going to win this series.”