A funny thing happened during Game 6 in Memphis. While Kevin Durant struggled with 11 points on his way to the worst playoff performance of his young career, I was seized not with worry but total certainty that the Thunder were going to win in OKC and that Durant was going off.
I've reserved that confidence only for a handful of NBA players and the names are Bird, Jordan, Olujawon, and Magic. One games' struggle morphs into a steely-eyed stare and close-out dominance 48 hours later.
Kevin is becoming that sort of a player. In the close-out game against a red hot Denver, Durant poured in 41 points while singlehandedly placing the Thunder on his back, bringing them back from 9 down with 3:31 left. Against Memphis, his 39 points in 39 minutes of play (I can't do the math, but I think that's like eight points a minute) in Game 7 weren't nearly as dramatic. Just a cool decimation of every defense the Grizzlies ran at him with sharpshooting from the three point line, multiple alley oops dunks from Westbrook, high energy in transition (is Durant the NBA's most underrated finisher?), and with an array of jump shots. He paired his scoring explosion with 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, and excellent defense.
Naughty Westbrook was nowhere to be seen and in many ways Russell's performance was better than Durant. Good Westbrook threw down a triple double with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 14 assists - and somewhere Magic Johnson is smiling and nodding. Is he starting to understand that he can totally dominate a game while scoring less than 20? He completely owned game tempo, flow, and ran the Thunder offense so beautifully that for a brief moment the words "combo guard" seemed a mockery of the critic applying the term.
Could Westbrook be learning that just because he can get his shot off whenever he likes that it doesn't mean it's always a good idea?
We'll find out. Because Jason Kidd isn't staying in front of him. And Jason may not want to anyway.
It's also hard not to sing the praises of James Harden and the old-man game housed in his 21 year old body. He reminds me of every dude at the rec wearing two knee braces, old school short shorts, calls everyone "young fella", and his team never leaves the court. He runs like every step hurts, he gets his shot off without ever going by anyone, and it's kind of difficult to actually explain to anyone who has never seen him play why he's good. He's just...good.
Good beard, too.
While Celtic-o-philes and believers in Ubuntu rave about how Kendrick Perkins' toughness and clutchy winnerness is the change in this year's Thunder, people that actually watched their last two series know the truth: former Jayhawk Nick Collison has been the best OKC big since Serge Ibaka got banged up. His Game 7 stat line of 8 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1 steal in 33 minutes along with unbelievable energy, quality D on Shrek Zach Randolph, means that a post-game plus-minus of +26 wasn't a statistical aberration. Nick Collison has been a consistent plus-minus champion and I'm starting to understand why.
As for Perkins, it may not be his presence (he claims he's about 65% on his knee right now) or the players that came with him (including the offensively gifted Nazr Mohammed, who is offering a look of what he might offer later in the playoffs or next year) so much as the absence of Krstic and Green. The Thunder would probably be a better team if they'd simply cut Krstic and Green outright. I'm not recommending that as a strategy obviously, just making an observation. I'm delusional enough to defend that assertion too, I think. Their absence has allowed better basketball players that fit the OKC team concept (Harden, Collison, Ibaka) to grab their minutes. And if you managed to watch the Celtics' series, Krstic barely left the pine despite a paucity of Celtic big bodies and Jeff Green offered 7.3 points per game as a 7th man.
If you'd like to imagine a Green-Krstic frontline going against Gasol and Randolph, I'd also like for you to imagine throwing a pot-bellied pig into a tiger enclosure and the Thunder going home in 6 while Randolph goes for 36 and 13 every night as Gasol chips in an easy 20 and 15.
The Thunder have their work cut out for them. The Mavericks are the smartest, most experienced team left in the playoffs and for all of my raves about Durant, Dirk is the league's most efficient scorer. The Mavericks have also been out of their minds at the three point line and have the guiding hand of veteran PG Jason Kidd who, though he lacks Westbrook's athletic profile at this stage in his career, has seen every NBA defense and wrinkle thousands of times and will make his adjustment before the Maverick coaching staff has a chance to call time-out. Dallas showed little ability to handle Durant during the regular season, but they also had little trouble handling his teammates by playing defense with zone principles, relying on length, and preventing the Thunder from getting out in transition.
If Scott Brooks isn't drawing up a lot of zone busters and working with Westbrook on recognition today, he may have taken this young franchise as far as he's able.
Back to Durant.
Forget that he is the NBA's scoring title winner two years in a row at 22 years of age. Forget that he's been playing best in the games that matter most. Forget that in three short years the franchise has gone from 23-59 (NBA laughingstock) to 50-32 (1st round playoff exit to champion Lakers in a hard fought six games) to 56-26 (Western Conference Finals and who knows what else) with his growth as a player the primary causation.
No, if you want to understand his uniqueness you need know no more than this:
A former Longhorn basketball player who takes his photos flashing Hook 'em, conspicuously wears orange when he walks around town, and constantly talks up Texas on Twitter, in interviews, and generally in life, resides in the heart of Sooner country and you can't find a single Oklahoman to say a bad word about him.
The Closer is bringing us...closer.
(time for a cleansing Silkwood shower)
In related news, tjarks offers some excellent thoughts on Dwyane Wade and the infamous '06 Maverick NBA Finals. If you're not reading tjarks, you're missing out.