Kevin Durant has officially cemented himself as the best basketball player in the world right now. There should be no talk of Lebron James playing at an elite level or Kobe Bryant being clutch or Dwight Howard dominating the defensive end of the court. Durant has silenced any critics and elevated his play to another level during the 2012 playoffs and this series win against the San Antonio Spurs is another example of his greatness.
Why were the Thunder able to come back and win 4 consecutive games against a Spurs team who were just coming off a 20 game win streak? 3 words. Sefolosha, Ibaka, Durant.
Sefolosha terrorized Parker and other Spurs wing players every time he was on the floor. He disrupted off ball movement, he deflected passes, he made it difficult to come off back door screens, which broke the Thunder’s back in the first two games. Not only that, but he produced at a ridiculously efficient level on the offensive end of the court. Defensive specialists like Sefolosha tend to be offensive liabilities when on the court. Tony Allen stands around and looks mean when on offense, Keyon Dooling gets pushed around and even Dwight Howard looks absolutely mechanical in the low post, with no fluidity with his post moves. When you look at Sefolosha’s numbers the past 4 games, there is nothing gawdy about them. But the impact on the game was significant. He ran every time they got the ball, producing a few point here and there. He made the corner 3, which, in my opinion the key facet in keeping Sefolosha on the floor. His ability to hit the shot meant whoever was guarding him, usually Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard, had to respect his range. This spread the floor for Durant and Westbrook to drive and kick. This also meant that if the Spurs got the rebound off a missed shot, it was difficult for Ginobili to run the fast break, which is where Ginobili usually severs the key arteries of teams he plays against, with his dazzling twists and turns as he drives to the hoop.
Ibaka played nearly perfect basketball this series. In fact, he WAS perfect in game 4, going 11 for 11, helping the Thunder tie up the series. It was his offense that made him stand out in this series. It was already known that Ibaka would have his way on the defensive end. With only Boris Diaw, not the most impressive physical specimen, to guard (not including Duncan who Perkins clearly handled), Ibaka did not have to expend much energy on his sole matchup. He was relatively free to roam and only had to float out to defend the occasional 3 point attempt from Diaw. But it was on the offensive side where he truly showed his mettle. Once again, with players like Harden, Westbrook and Durant penetrating the lane and creating plays, the supporting cast MUST be able to hit the midrange jumper when the defense collapses in on them. Ibaka was able to do just that. He forced Duncan and Diaw away from the rim which made it difficult to protect against drives. He also made very timely lane cuts for easy dunks.
I believe the performance by Durant this series was comparable to those given by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in series past. It was inspiring to watch and made us viewers want to believe that a new era had dawned where choking in the clutch by the media-proclaimed ‘greatest player in the world’ would no longer be an issue. It made viewers hope that there was finally an heir apparent to the ever-loosening stranglehold Kobe has on this league. There was a belief this performance was the gateway to a player this generation could be defined as. You look at Durant’s stat line and see 22, 36, 27 and 34 points in the past 4 Thunder wins and you say to yourself that it is impressive but you’ve seen better. You look at the defenders thrown against Durant in Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard and at times Manu Ginobili and you say to yourself, that was a pretty good performance. But you look at the intensity of the defense played by these more than capable defenders and the way Durant took over games and you must be in awe at the greatness you are witnessing. Throughout the series Durant had the mindset of a proven champion. He bided his time and struck when the damage would be most lethal. In the first half of every game, he was ready for Jackson’s nonstop battering when Durant was on the block. He took it and waited. Near the end of the third quarters and beginning of the fourth was when Durant would make his move. Jumper after jumper, coming off screen after screen. His defenders were already bushed after the first half and it was a stroll in the park for Durant to get the ball then. All this is eerily reminiscent of what the great Jordan used to do. Hit him all you want. Pull on his jersey, keep a hand on his chest and make him work for every inch. He will come back in the last five minutes and rip your heart out. This is the true mentality of a champion and worthy of recognition as a great basketball player. The Spurs were simply outplayed and Captain Jack described it best. Those mother****ers were just better than them.
As great as Lebron James is with his overall capability and ability to elevate his team’s performance, he has yet to show he has the heart of a lion and the killer instinct of champions past. And this is basically what it all comes down to. With the exception of the great Piston teams earlier this decade, NBA championships are won by clutch performances and players with the aforementioned killer instinct. Even if the Heat do get by the Celtics (which I still believe they will), they will be hard pressed to get by the burgeoning, rampaging Oklahoma City Thunder.