The Thunder will not win it all this year.
They can’t. They have no Russell Westbrook, who is sidelined for the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury. They have no James Harden, who was traded to Houston five days before the start of the regular season. They only have Kevin Durant, surrounded by a bunch of tough but limited players. And Durant alone is not enough.
The Thunder had their difficulties dispatching the Rockets with a 3-0 lead in the first round after Westbrook went down, and for long stretches of Sunday’s Game 1 against the Grizzlies in the second round, those difficulties continued.
The Thunder did not have enough interior presence to deal with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They did not have enough backcourt scoring to make Mike Conley work on the defensive end. In the absence of two All-Stars who helped carry Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals last season, the Thunder were asking Durant to do too much. At least, it seemed like they were asking Durant to do too much.
The trouble with that logic is, Durant is defying all logic. He was immense down the stretch of that game, outscoring the entire Memphis team in final seven minutes, 50 seconds. His pull-up game-clincher in transition may have been the highlight shot, but Durant did his best work well before that. That fact that he had any energy left to make that bucket was one of the more amazing aspects of his performance.
Durant has been arguably the league’s best scorer for the past three years, but this year his game has evolved. Carmelo Anthony seizing the scoring title from Durant late in the season was a symptom of that evolution. Durant scored a game-high 35 points in Game 1, yet scoring was not his most impressive contribution. He also grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out six assists in 43 minutes; the rest of Oklahoma City’s starters had 15 rebounds and six assists combined. He blocked two shots, one less than shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka. He committed three turnovers, as many as Kendrick Perkins, who had a fraction of Durant’s touches.
Had Durant been the slightest bit less efficient or shown marginally worse decision-making, the Grizzlies grit ‘n’ grind their way to a 1-0 lead in the series. Durant was that efficient, though, and his decision-making was flawless. Tayshaun Prince, the man assigned to guard him for much of the night, looked gassed by the end, not the other way around. The Thunder are very much alive in the championship discussion if Durant can keep this up — and that is the overriding question.
Even a 24-year-old in such impeccable shape as Durant can only carry this heavy a load for so long. Lactic acid eventually wins. He may be able to survive for the first two games of this series, then recuperate during the three-day break before Game 3, but after that the schedule gets tougher.
The Thunder and Grizzlies would play every other day between games four and seven, giving the young star little time to recover from his do-everything, 40-plus minute outings. Even if the Thunder somehow make it past the Grizzlies, Durant would have to find enough energy to contend with the Spurs or Warriors, and after that, the Heat. There is no way Durant can keep this up for another month and half.