I will be the first one to admit I’m late to the party on Kevin Durant.
I drink coffee, not Red Bull. My headphones are Sennheiser, not Beats or SkullCandy. I didn’t have a Twitter account until nine months ago. I still don’t have a Smartphone.
So when some new phenomenon permeates basketball’s pop culture, I’m not exactly at the front of the line. In fact, I didn’t even attend the parties for Harold Miner, Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson, Joe Smith, Damon Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin.
I like to think I have pretty good control over my kneejerk. When some new hotshot comes into this league, he has to do a lot to win me over. He has to do more than score, which Durant did almost immediately. He has to do more than make an All-Star team, which Durant did in his third season. He has to do more than win a playoff series or two, which Durant did last year.
A truly special player has to assume the responsibility for his team’s fortunes. He has to continue to work to get better, even if his game appears flawless. He has to remember that players play, coaches coach and general managers manage. He has to display leadership that convinces all of his teammates to come along for the ride.
And most of all. he has to tune out all of the noise and remain singularly focused on one thing – winning.
Which is exactly what Durant is all about.
“I don’t want to sound like a jerk or anything, but I really don’t care what people say outside the locker room, outside of this organization, what I need to do or what I didn’t do,” Durant said earlier this week. “I really don’t care.”
Durant didn’t grumble when P.J. Carlesimo made him a shooting guard and left him exposed and embarrassed on the defensive end. He didn’t complain when his first offseason was consumed by uprooting and moving 2,000 miles to a new NBA outpost. He didn’t demand the coach’s head when his second season began with 29 losses in 32 games. He didn’t act like his urine was champagne the following season, when he led his team to 50 wins. And he didn’t hold his franchise’s feet to the fire when he was due for a contract extension.
Durant didn’t make excuses, point fingers or call out management a year ago, when the Mavs dispatched the Thunder primarily through their edge in postseason experience. He didn’t use the lockout as lazy time, as so many other established players did. He didn’t score 66 points in a Rucker League game because he could, but rather because fans had come to see him play and he felt a sense of obligation. And he didn’t go to Akron to work out with LeBron James to rub shoulders with greatness, but rather because he thought it would make him a better player.
And it did. The Thunder led the Western Conference for most of the season before being caught down the stretch by the Spurs. When they were setting the pace, Durant didn’t scowl or strut. And when they slipped, he didn’t pout or panic.
In this postseason, Durant has led the Thunder to a sweep of the defending champion Mavericks, a vanquishing of the Lakers in which his clutch play upstaged Kobe Bryant, and four straight wins over the Spurs, stopping the league’s hottest team dead in its tracks. And when that mission was complete, he didn’t jump on a scorer’s table or engage in any other self-serving look-at-me moment that would end up in a sneaker commercial.
He hugged his mom at courtside.
In Game 1 of the finals, Durant simply stole the fourth quarter from James with 17 of his 36 points, matching Michael Jordan for the second-best Finals debut in NBA history. And when Game 2 didn’t exactly go as planned – foul trouble, a controversial non-call and the Thunder’s first home loss of the postseason – Durant manned up. And when he was or wasn’t fouled on his final shot (a matter of considerable debate), he wouldn’t take the bait and blame the refs.
“I missed the shot, man,” he said.
This is what makes Durant different from the Marburys, McGradys and Anthonys. He is singularly about the game. There is nothing extraneous – no contract squabbles, no undermining coaches, no media feuds, no alpha dog mentality.
Quite simply, Durant is a more pleasant, affable version of Tim Duncan. He is comfortable enough in his own skin to find contentment with being big-time in a small market. And you get the sense that others who perform under brighter lights might be a bit jealous.
“I like quiet as much as possible,” said Dwyane Wade, who isn’t afforded that luxury in Miami. “I look for quiet every morning I wake up and leave my house. I look for the opportunity for no one to see me. That’s not the cards I was dealt.
“Some players have that ability. Tim Duncan is like that. Watching the playoffs, I’ve seen – I don’t know if I’m correct, but I’ve seen Tim Duncan sitting on the bench before every game, two kids run up to him, it was a girl and a boy, I didn’t know he had kids. I’m assuming they’re his. They kind of look like him. But you don’t know everything about guys because of certain places they are.”
Oklahoma City seems like a perfect spot for the demeanor of Durant, who remains wonderfully unaffected by the increased volume and intense glare of the game’s grandest stage.
“Just not think about it. Just play,” he said. “Pride myself on working hard and learning and being coachable. I have faith in all those things that I do day in and day out, coming in, working hard, believing in myself and my teammates, and believing in the system.
“Whatever happens after that, it happens, as long as I know that I come in and give it my all every single day. I can’t worry about what other people say or expectations they put on me. It’s just all about how I view myself and how my teammates view me, and we’ll go from there.”
Sorry I’m late, Kev. Thanks for the invite. Is there any coffee?
TRIVIA: Kevin Durant scored 36 points in Game 1, tying Michael Jordan for the second-most points in a Finals debut. Who has the record? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: When asked by sports radio and TV lowbrow pot-stirrer Jim Rome whether the draft lottery was fixed, NBA commissioner David Stern – who usually tweaks these sort of questioners with equal parts intellect, insight and insult – surprisingly chose to sink to Rome’s level by responding, “Are you still beating your wife?”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, on why he appreciates coach Scott Brooks:
“I just love how humble he is. I mean, he drives a Corolla. How many coaches you know do that?”
LINE OF THE WEEK: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City vs. Miami, June 12: 46 minutes, 12-20 FGs, 4-8 3-pointers, 8-9 FTs, eight rebounds, four assists, one block, two turnovers, 36 points in a 105-94 win. In an absolutely scintillating Finals debut, Durant scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Thunder pulled away.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City vs. Miami, June 14: 20 minutes, 1-5 FGs, 0-0 FTs, eight rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, one block, three turnovers, three fouls, two points in a 100-96 loss. In addition to his customary complaining, Perkins struggled in the pick-and-roll on both ends. His minutes continue to dwindle as he becomes more irrelevant.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City at Miami, June 17. In doing research for our series of best Finals games since 1984 (here are the links for best Game 1s, and best Game 2s) the Heat have been involved in two of the top five – last year’s narrow win at Dallas, where they dodged a potential dagger by Dirk Nowitzki, and six years ago vs. the Mavs, where a much more spry Dwyane Wade saved their season. Perhaps they will give us another treat tonight.
TRILLION WATCH: Despite the limited number of games and both coaches shortening their rotations, Miami center Joel Anthony registered a 2 trillion in Tuesday’s Finals opener. A consolation prize to Miami’s Daequan Cook, whose two missed free throws scuttled a perfectly awful 3 trillion in the same game. Anthony (June 7), teammate Juwan Howard (May 24) and Boston’s Ryan Hollins (May 4) still share the postseason lead at 4 trillion.
TWO MINUTES: Six months removed from the resolution of the lockout, the steady whine of NBA owners crying poor is a distant sound. Should it return in the coming months and years, keep in mind two cogent points: Despite a stagnant economy, extremely rich folk continue to line up to not only buy NBA teams but in some cases overpay for them. Witness the $450 million Joe Lacob and Peter Guber paid in 2010 for the Warriors, who have had one season of playoff revenue since 1994; or the $420 million Tom Gores paid last year for the Pistons, who play in an economically depressed metropolis; or the reported $350 million offered last week by Robert Pera for the Grizzlies, who play in the second-smallest market in the league. Also, the first two games of the Finals each drew overnight TV ratings of 11.8, the best numbers in eight years. If those numbers are sustained – and with the star power, the competitive contests and potentially two Sunday slots still to be played, there is no reason to believe they won’t – this Finals will have the best overall ratings since 2001, when Allen Iverson took on Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. And the Heat and Thunder will do it despite playing in TV markets ranked 16th and 45th nationally and 14th and 28th among NBA cities. … The Heat have used seven different lineups in the postseason. The Thunder have used one. … If the NBA gets its way, this summer’s Olympics will be the last that are open to all players. The league is pushing hard for basketball to follow soccer’s international model. “For the Olympics only, it would be 23 and under,” deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. “For the World Cup of Basketball, just like with the World Cup of soccer/football, that competition would be eligible to anyone.” Restricting participation will not diminish interest in the Olympics, which are a self-sustaining global spectacle that transcends basketball. But there could be some resistance from FIBA, which undoubtedly has already heard complaints from other countries about age limitations. For example, Spain’s Olympic roster this summer will include the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez, none of whom would be eligible for the 2016 Games. As for Team USA, it is almost impossible to envision its 2016 rosterif the 23-and-under proposal goes through, because it will be primarily comprised of players currently in college and even high school. … Teams don’t regularly play three straight home games in the playoffs – at least until the Finals – but the Thunder just did, and alarming trend emerged. In Game 6 vs. San Antonio and the first two games vs. Miami, Oklahoma City quickly fell behind by double digits. The Thunder were scrambled for wins in the first two games but could not get all the way back in Game 2 vs. the Heat. Now they face three straight games in a tough venue and have to find a solution to the problem quickly. “That was the game. We can’t start off down 18-2,” said Kevin Durant, who had his team’s only basket in that awful start. “We can’t go down that much, especially at home. We’ve got to correct it.” … Much has been made of the superstar showdown between MVP LeBron James and scoring champion Durant and how much they are guarding each other. Through the first two games, Durant has defended James more than vice versa simply because the Heat have more versatile defenders than the Thunder. Miami has gotten a little tricky with James, starting him on center Kendrick Perkins and switching the pick-and-roll onto Durant, because Oklahoma City simply refuses to throw the ball to Perkins in those sets. Despite the extra energy James expends by defending Durant, Heat guard Dwyane Wade likes the matchup. “I’m glad that he has that challenge because it’s going to make him focus more. It’s going to make him play a little different,” Wade said. “I’d rather for him to be guarding Kevin Durant than to have to guard DeShawn Stevenson like last year, where he wasn’t as involved. And also Shawn Marion, he wasn’t as involved. Kevin Durant, you’ve got to have your antennas up at all times.” … When Miami was edged, 24-23, in the third quarter of Game 2, it marked just the third time in 20 postseason games involving the Heat that the winner of the third period did not win the game. … Durant wasn’t the only Thunder player who spent offseason workouts alongside an MVP in James. Guard Russell Westbrook has been doing it every summer since he was drafted with Derrick Rose, the 2011 MVP. “It started off with my first pre-draft,” Westbrook said. “We worked out every summer since then. It’s definitely helped both of us get better. I learned some things from him, he taught me a few things, and it’s definitely made us better players, made us better players for our teams, as well.” Westbrook needs to start putting some of those lessons to good use. Despite averaging 27.0 points in the first two games, he has shot just 20-of-50 from the field. When you add his four turnovers, Westbrook has been personally responsible for a maximum of 34 empty possessions, easily the most of any player in the Finals. His points per shot is 1.08, well off his regular season number of 1.23. By contrast, Thunder teammate James Harden leads all postseason players attempting at least 10 shots per game with a PPS of 1.58 after finishing the regular season at 1.66, second to Tyson Chandler (1.97). Through the first two games, Wade has a PPS of 1.10, James is at 1.35, Durant is at 1.62 and Shane Battier is at a spiffy 2.0. … David Stern occasionally allows the media to read the tea leaves by offering a prediction or outlook on a certain situation. But he refrained from that approach regarding the Sacramento Kings, who appeared all set for a long stay in California’s capital until the Maloof family backed off on its financial part of the arena plan, leaving the Kings in long-term limbo, with Anaheim and Seattle wiping their collective drool. “On other situations I might hazard a guess for a prognostication,” Stern said. “On this one, I’m out of the business for now.”
Trivia Answer: Allen Iverson with 48 in 2001. … Happy 56th Birthday, Edgar Jones. … Women go to the bathroom together less often than James and Wade appear on the postgame podium together.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.