Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant’s disappearing act

Kevin Durant had a rough time shooting in Memphis.

Kevin Durant had a rough time shooting in Memphis.

Kevin Durant has had the magic touch all season, seemingly scoring at will and hitting some incredible shots. Widely considered to be the frontrunner for the 2014 NBA MVP award, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward has put on another magic act recently: disappearing.

While he hasn’t disappeared from games in a literal aspect, Durant’s recent production has been far from normal. Sure, he still may be scoring 30+ points, but it is a far less efficient 30 than the caliber that the entire league has gotten used to seeing from him. In game four on Saturday night, Durant shot 5-21 from the field, scoring only 15 points. This was the first time that he was held under 20 points since December of 2013. That’s right. 2013.

But it wasn’t just game four. Since the series shifted to Memphis for games three and four, Durant is shooting 15-48. At 31.3 percent, that is well below his season average of 50.3 percent. He has been just as abysmal from deep, shooting just 1-15 from three in Memphis. Even his free throws aren’t going in at his usual rate, as he is shooting almost 15 percent worse from the charity stripe than his season average.

Durant has looked frustrated and lost on the offensive end lately, routinely missing jumpers that he hits in his sleep. It sure hasn’t helped that Russell Westbrook’s shooting has been just as sporadic, with the Grizzlies even saying that they wanted Westbrook to be taking more shots. In fact, it took 32 points off the bench from Reggie Jackson for the Thunder to squeak out a comeback overtime win in game four to even the series.

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Durant seems to have even lost his closing ability. It was Jackson, who had scored only 15 points combined in the first three games of the series, who head coach Scott Brooks trusted to hit six key late game free throws to preserve the win. It was Jackson who was the primary ball handler down the stretch of both overtime and regulation. It was Jackson who took and made the clutch jumpers and layups to tie up the game or take the lead. Not Westbrook. Not Durant. Jackson.

Granted, Memphis guard Tony Allen has to receive a lion’s share of credit for slowing down Durant. He has kept the scoring champ frustrated throughout the game, all while staying out of foul trouble and averaging a surprising 12.8 points per game. Still, even though Allen may be the best perimeter defender in the league, you would think that Durant would still be a little more efficient in his shots.

Durant has occasionally been criticized for his late game decision making, sometimes deferring to Russell Westbrook for clutch shots. He simply does not have the fearlessness that Westbrook seems to have, where he will take a shot no matter how poorly he is shooting. He certainly knows that he needs to be the man for the Thunder to advance, but will he shake this slump and lead the team on?

After the game four victory, Durant ran to Jackson and the two shared an emotional hug. The scoring champion knew that he had been bailed out by the backup point guard, but he was just grateful for the win. For all the success that he had leading the Thunder while Westbrook was injured earlier in the season, Durant has been unable to shoulder the load against this physical Grizzlies team. Westbrook’s injury was the primary explanation for last year’s early playoff exit against the Grizzlies, where Durant just was unable to string together four wins. But this year, the Thunder do not have that excuse. Everyone is healthy. Everyone has championship expectations. If the Thunder bow out early once again, it will be Kevin Durant who bears most of the blame. And if that does happen, people will start asking the same question that plagued LeBron James until 2012: Does he have what it takes to win a title?

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