The term “unreliable’’ would apply to many people about many character flaws, such as the very dumb decision by Memphis’ Zach Randolph to punch Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams in the jaw and land himself a suspension for Game 7 of their playoff series. Kevin Durant, conversely, is about as reliable as anyone in pro sports today, on the court and off. Just because a headline writer at the Oklahoman newspaper, not exactly a preferred destination out of communications school, referred to Durant as “Mr. Unreliable’’ doesn’t mean more headlines should have resulted from that one.
Racist, this was not.
Reckless, this was.
Moronic, this was.
Wasn’t Durant the unreliable scoring machine who delivered a stunning 41 consecutive games of at least 25 points, one half a regular season? Wasn’t he the unreliable icon who raised $1 millon for Oklahoma tornado victims last year? Wasn’t he so stinking unreliable that he interrupted the LeBron James era to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, an award he’ll receive in the coming days? Isn’t he so unreliable as a human being that people can’t believe, at 25, that he’s so well-behaved and polite? A silly headline on a small-market media outlet does not inspire Kevin Durant.
“We were down 3-2 and on the brink of elimination, that’s motivation enough,” he said. “Headlines, I’m not going to give them credit for nothing.”
Now that Durant and the Thunder have survived the threat, the question is whether they’re capable of addressing the issues that led to three losses and return to the NBA Finals out of the difficult Western Conference. If Durant is unreliable about anything, it’s in his willingness to sometimes take a lesser role and allow Russell Westbrook, his ultra-talented teammate, to be an alpha dog. “Sometimes you have to be a decoy out there. I’m fine with that,” Durant said after the Grizzlies had taken a 3-2 series lead. “If I want the ball I got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break. I trust my teammates with whatever decisions they make. I just got to do better for them.’’
Decoy? Did he say decoy? No, no, no. Even when Durant was struggling against the junkyard defense of a familiar nemesis, Tony Allen, and even when he was hitting only 15 of 45 shots in Games 4 and 5, he cannot ever utter the d-word. When Westbrook has the ball too much, pounding the dribble and draining too much time off possessions, it’s anathema to the Thunder. It was becoming such an issue — Westbrook scored 30 points on a thoroughly counterproductive 10-of-31 shooting from the field in Game 4 — that whispers were growing louder that coach Scott Brooks might be out of a job with a series loss. How did Durant go 12 consecutive possessions without a shot in Game 5? Not only should he the first option, he should be the second, third and fourth option, with Westrbook the fifth. Not at his best against Memphis, he still was 7-for-14 with 22 points in the league-record four overtime games. Westbrook? He shot 0-for-14 with one point.
Sometimes, the Thunder offense is a work of art. Other times, it’s two statues in a courtyard, such as Game 3, when Westbrook has only two assists and Durant only three. When James Harden was shipped off to Houston two summers ago because the Thunder couldn’t afford three superstars on the small-market payroll, they lost the valuable third option that helped them reach the league Finals. These days, Serge Ibaka is not a third option.
So, the strategy moving forward seems obvious. And if it takes another headline — Mr. Ballhog? — so be it if Durant responds the way he did to Mr. Unreliable. “I’m unreliable? Me, Mr. Unreliable?” he said. “As a competitor there’s going to be good and bad days. They’re going to build you up, they’re going to break you down. You just have to stay even keeled, and that’s what I am. It’s all about what have you done for me lately, and I understand that.”
Brooks shook his head. “There’s a lot of things you can say about him,” he said, “but (unreliable) wouldn’t be one of them.”
“A week ago you’re calling him MVP and now you’re calling him Mr. Unreliable,” Westbrook said. “That doesn’t make no sense to me.”
As long as the shots are distributed with the proper weight and balance — Durant had 36 points on 23 shots in the Game 6 rout, Westbrook had 25 points on 21 shots — the Thunder have a chance to win the West.
And if they don’t? I’d still call him Mr. MVP and be very thankful you have him down yonder in Oklahoma, among the tumbleweeds. In 2016, when he’s a free agent and eyeing Los Angeles, he just might remember a certain local headline.