For the entirety of the 2013-14 NBA season, we’ve credited the Western Conference with being a powerhouse; even by the West’s recent lofty standards of powerhouse-ism. All year long we’ve looked forward to a playoff bracket on that end that would feature eight teams well worthy of second or even third round consideration, with championship contenders running up and down the board, alongside formidable groups that have every right to expect they can “upset” a higher-seeded opponent.
Now it’s time to watch those expectations play out in real time, and it seems as if some are wringing their hands a bit. Coaches’ jobs are apparently on the line. TV and sports talk radio airwaves have been overrun with talk of choking and disappointment. And on Thursday, in the hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder were set to play for their playoff lives against the Memphis Grizzlies, readers of the Oklahoman awoke to this headline:
Now, columnists don’t create their own headlines, and by lunchtime the paper’s sports editor Mike Sherman admitted that the “Mr. Unreliable” headline did not fully represent the thoughts of the columnist whose feature it was written for – Berry Tramel – or the paper’s thoughts on Kevin Durant as a player, season-long performer, or franchise stud.
No, it was all about his work against the Memphis Grizzlies. His 40 percent from the field, need-25-shots-to-score-28-points work against the lower-seeded Grizz.
We were supposed to expect upsets in the West, and now we’re upset?
It’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a special Western Conference. The Memphis Grizzlies may be a seventh-seeded team, but they also put together a 40-17 end to their season (pro-rated, that’s a 58-win season, just a win below what OKC managed this year), and the team ranks as the league’s best defense when it fields a healthy Marc Gasol. Gasol’s looming presence, alongside that of fellow defensive hound Tony Allen and the contributions of Tayshaun Prince and a roaming Mike Conley, have made life hell for Kevin Durant.
And Durant’s teammates haven’t helped much either.
Russell Westbrook has hit exactly one shot in the four overtime contests in this series. The Thunder are a better team with Westbrook on board, years worth of statistics have fleshed this out, but his personal stats in this series are miserable – Russ is shooting just 34 percent from the field in the series, he’s shot as many free throws as he has three-pointers during this five game stretch despite hitting just 18 percent of his long range looks, and his decision-making is the stuff of blowhard cable TV sports gasbag dreams.
The Grizzlies have basically decided to stop guarding Thabo Sefolosha, who has responded by hitting just a third of his shots in the series, and the team long ago decided that Kendrick Perkins was a figure to be ignored in the Oklahoma City lineup. All manner of both driving and passing (Durant has emerged as a fantastic playmaker in his seventh season) have been taken away by Gasol’s ability to roam and crowd. Things are hardly better when Perkins sits, and as a result a championship contender could be knocked out of the playoffs on the first day of May.
Again, though – consider the context.
Outside of, possibly, Dallas upending San Antonio, there are no upsets out West. Nine wins separated the Thunder and Grizzlies this season, and yes Russell Westbrook did miss 13 more games to injury than Gasol did in 2013-14, but this bracket is so evenly matched that you can’t really lose the bit when things don’t go all chalk-y. Toss in Memphis’ significant playoff history against Oklahoma City, with or without Westbrook in the lineup, and the stasis of OKC coach Scott Brooks’ playbook?
It may not be the stuff that upsets are made of, but it is damn close.
Headline issues aside, the Oklahoman countered that the Grizzlies have gotten inside Durant’s head, pointing to his 40 percent shooting mark with Tony Allen both on and off the court, and his sub-standard (to his near-90 percent standards) playoff free throw shooting mark of 71.8 percent. We’ll let Berry Tramel make his case:
Durant was not available for interviews Wednesday but said after the game Tuesday, “I just gotta stay disciplined in my shots and knock them down. Stay aggressive and stay positive.”
Trouble is, Durant’s aggression and positive attitude come and go. His shoulders have dipped repeatedly during rough stretches of this streetfight. His effort is spotty. His confidence is shaken.
That’s not appropriate for a 25-year-old superstar. A 21-year-old star? Sure. When Durant made just 35 percent of his shots in that six-game Laker series in 2010, we knew it was growing pains. Knew that Durant was being hounded by Ron Artest, the Tony Allen of yesteryear, a guy who sold out to defense and could stage Les’ Miserables for even the sharpest of shooters.
Allen has earned such respect, and he still may be the NBA’s premier wing defender, but this is not all on him. It’s not all on Durant’s psyche, either.
The Memphis Grizzlies are good enough to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. This is a team that won at a blistering pace down the stretch of the season, fielding a top-rank defense and good enough offense, a squad with enough smarts and creativity to make its best brand of hay in the postseason. The Thunder were one of the best teams in the NBA without Russell Westbrook in the lineup this season, and yet the Grizzlies absolutely dismantled OKC in the playoffs last year without Russ – winning four straight after an initial loss to take the series in five games.
Why should we expect anything less in 2014? Especially with four games going into overtime, Westbrook shooting so poorly, and observers from miles away able to accurately guess Scott Brooks’ upcoming offensive sets as the Thunder bring the ball up court?
Yes, the Oklahoman attempted to distance itself from the “Mr. Unreliable” headline on Thursday, and they were right to – it’s not a point that Tramel was trying to put across.
That won’t stop the line from getting out, and it won’t get in the way of pundits using it during the afternoon, during drive-time, in early evening as the cable TV shows spark up, and don’t tell me you won’t see several shots of the paper’s headline during Thursday night’s Game 6 telecast.
It’s unfair, but this is what the Memphis Grizzlies tend to do to people. Even soon-to-be MVP winners.
Durant can and needs to do better, but how much more do we have to see before we start crediting Memphis?
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