OKLAHOMA CITY – Everyone had come rushing to Kevin Durant's defense, manufacturing an innocuous hometown newspaper headline into a cause that bordered on embarrassment. He's a franchise player, a generational talent on the brink of an MVP trophy and his message had a subtle, but unmistakable hint of acceptance: This is the superstar's burden.
Durant had a magnificent Game 7 to survive the Memphis Grizzlies in this Western Conference series, delivering 33 points on Saturday night. Back to back, he had been brilliant. He had been the MVP, again. There was no 'I told you,' no disdainful dissertations on his greatness. Durant was Durant.
"I got out of my own way," Durant said. "I was thinking too much. I was worrying about what [the media] was saying. I was worrying about what shots I was going to shoot throughout the game…"
Once the Grizzlies lost Zach Randolph for Game 7, they lost the chance to beat the Thunder. The Grizzlies could no longer pound the ball inside, no longer control the speed of the game. Memphis had to play too fast to beat Oklahoma City, and ultimately this night belonged to the redemptive powers of playoff basketball. Russell Westbrook was beyond brilliant – 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds – to play the part of the perfect complement to Durant.
When everyone else gave Durant the excuse to play the part of the martyr, to pretend he was somehow unjustly skewered by the "Mr. Unreliable" Oklahoman headline, a sputtering star had never been so stand-up. He had watched LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, watched Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and understood the truth of the matter. He had played poorly and deserved the criticism. Understand this: If Durant ever bailed on his teammates the way that newspaper's sports editor did on his staff with a scared, unnecessary and undermining apology, Durant would be rightfully ripped to kingdom come.
"This is a one-sport town, and he's the superstar," Thunder guard Derek Fisher told Yahoo Sports. "Kevin understands it. He embraces it. The fact everybody else was going crazy over it – family and friends and fans – made it almost enjoyable for him to go out and play that night. As much as anything, it was a reminder that a lot of people cared about him here."
Memphis' Tony Allen had been a nightmare for Durant in this series, and his teammates had become worried over it. Allen had climbed into Durant's head, and suddenly the easy shots weren't so easy anymore – never mind the contested ones Allen made him take. Fisher watched Durant closely, watched how he tried to process the struggles. The earnestness with which Durant fought through them stayed with Fisher.
"Kevin wasn't worried about getting his shot, or his points, he was worried about letting the guys in the locker room down," Fisher said. "For him, that was the hardest part. He felt like he was letting guys down as the franchise player, as the leader.
"Every great player goes through it at some point, all of them. There starts to be some doubt. There starts to be criticism all around you. There's second-guessing. They all do – and Kevin worked his way right out of it."
Durant's so magnificently talented, endlessly earnest and let's be honest here: So much of the Thunder criticism is deflected upon Westbrook. This spares Durant and sometimes it's unfair. The thing is, Durant never minds it. There's something invigorating that comes with criticism, that comes with people taking shots at the way you do the job. The Oklahoman did Durant a favor, and only the shortsighted and small-minded would see it as something that eventually would play a part in driving him out of Oklahoma City.
This nonsense doesn't drive a superstar out of town, it drives him. That's the difference with a star who gets it, who embraces the doubters and ultimately challenges himself to do bigger, do better. For all the yelling and screaming over that meaningless morning paper, Durant hadn't come on Saturday to say I told you so. That's for losers. Soon, Kevin Durant will be the NBA's MVP and understand the burden that comes with it. Take your best shot, because history has taught him through Michael and Magic, Kobe and LeBron: Embrace it. That's a franchise player, a forever star.