May 16, 2013

Thunder season ends as fatigued Durant flames out

The Express-Star

OKLAHOMA CITY — Whether it was frustration, disappointment, exhaustion or all of the above, Kevin Durant understandably hung a low head after Wednesday’s 88-84 loss to Memphis that saw the Thunder bow out of the NBA playoffs.

Since Russell Westbrook’s post-season ending injury in game three of the Houston series, even more pressure than usual has been put on Durant to deliver Oklahoma City deeper into the playoffs. Unfortunately, 5-for-21 from the floor and a quiet 21 points was all he had left.

“He missed some shots,” head coach Scott Brooks said about his star man after the game. “You can miss shots in the first quarter to start the game as you can miss them late in the game. We talked throughout the game. He wanted to play. I was going to try to rest him a minute or two, but the game did not dictate that.”

After taking a 23-18 lead in the first quarter, the Thunder were pinned back by a 9-1 Memphis scoring run to begin the second frame. It was a difficult night for Durant, with trips up and down the court and a constant barrage of Memphis bodies exhausting the Thunder star player by halftime. He managed a quiet 12 points by the break, but eight of those came from 11 attempts at the free throw line.

“I gave it all I had for my team,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting on the floor and kept being aggressive. That’s all I can ask for. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’ll look back on this down the line and appreciate this tough time. It’s something we have got to embrace and get better from.”

Durant’s best spurt away from the charity stripe came in the third, when his seven points, including a clutch jumper as the clock ran down, helped bring the Thunder to within two. He also began spreading the offense around more, recording six assists in the second half and giving players like Thabo Sefolosha (2-for-5, five points) and Kevin Martin (3-for-6, eight points) a chance to take some of the offensive weight from Durant’s back. Usually known for his defensive duties, Serge Ibaka even got involved in spreading the attack around, finishing the night with 17 points after making eight of 17 shots.

This helped the Thunder to within two points of taking the game to overtime with about 10 seconds of a dramatic fourth quarter left, when the star was called upon again to muster a moment of greatness only to see the ball bounce off the back of the rim and out.

“Obviously it was going to KD,” Brooks said. “He had a great look, and that’s the shot we wanted. If they were going to collapse on him, he had 3-point shooters spacing the floor. If he had no look, he had those guys to pass to. But, he had a great look. That’s the shot I would live with 100 times out of 100.”

With 28 points and 14 rebounds, Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph did his part to help his team to reach the Western Conference Finals, a height they have never seen before in franchise history. Another double-double from point guard Mike Conley – 13 points and 11 assists – was simply the icing on the cake for a well-rounded and increasingly more dangerous Grizzlies team.

A larger wealth of talent is something the Thunder could have done with down the stretch to put them over the edge, Brooks said.

“If you’re asking are we a better team with Russell [Westbrook], that’s the easiest question you’ve asked me all year,” Brooks said. “I don’t look at it that way. Going into game three, we knew we had enough to win the series last time when Russell got hurt. That was the belief in myself with our guys. I’m disappointed that we didn’t win the series. With Russell, it’s hypothetical and there’s no reason to look at that. I’m looking forward to the summer and getting back.”