The propensity to call everything a “choke,” especially in the postseason, has gone overboard when it comes to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They didn’t choke. They lost a seven-game series to the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA playoffs in the Golden State Warriors, a team that won a record 73 regular-season games, has the two-time MVP in Steph Curry, the deadliest shooting guard in the league in Klay Thompson and that jack-of-all-trades tweener that 29 other teams covet in Draymond Green. The 2015 Finals MVP Andre Igoudala is a good chip to have in the back pocket, too.
Yes, the Thunder still should’ve won. They led 3-1 and in their last two losses, winnable games in the crunch, reverted to who they’ve been for years -- an isolation team that lacked the discipline under the duress.
This is vindication of sorts for Scott Brooks, who was fired before this season for unspecified reasons though he had one NBA Finals appearance in 2012.
Billy Donovan didn’t achieve better results for his No. 3 seed Thunder but they wore down the 67-win San Antonio Spurs in six games (Brooks accomplished this, too) and stole home-court advantage from Golden State in Game 1. They showed what they could be when at an optimum level but maintaining that posture is even more difficult.
The Thunder had the size to go with that versatility to push the Warriors in ways that seemed unthinkable. Durant and Russell Westbrook were unstoppable. They were able to switch bigs such as Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams onto Curry and Thompson and it worked. Then the clock struck midnight and the carriage leading them to the NBA Finals turned into a pumpkin. The Splash Brothers figured out how to exploit the matchups as three-pointer after three-pointer blazed the nets.
For his part, Durant didn’t recognize that he was being led into a traps as Igoudala defended him man-to-man while Green was playing zone coverage. What appeared to be clear paths to the basket turned into dreadful shot attempts.
The Thunder didn’t have a single turnover in the final 12 minutes of Monday’s series-defining 96-88 loss – only three in the second half in all -- but the errant shots that had no prayer of going into the basket might as well have been.
In a Game 6 loss, Oklahoma City shot just 5 of 19 (26.3%). Durant and Westbrook combined to shoot 3 of 14.
Durant is an MVP (2014). Westbrook, who tied an NBA record set Magic Johnson with 18 triple-doubles, was in the discussion and garnered more votes than his teammate for the award after the 2015-16 regular season.
They still weren't a match for history. Regardless of whether or not these Warriors could’ve beaten the Michael Jordan-led Bulls that won 72 games in a seven-game series, they're a special group. If it were so easy to replicate what they're doing, they would've lost more than nine regular-season games and surely wouldn't have stood a chance at coming back from a 3-1 deficit.
The cliche questions about Durant as he enters unrestricted free agency will grow louder: Can a team win a championship with him as their best player? Does Durant shrink when the moments get bigger?
After completing his ninth NBA season, he better get used to it. It happened to Dirk Nowitzki, who won a championship for the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, four years after his MVP season on a 67-win team ended in a first-round playoff exit. It took Nowitzki 13 years to get there and he left with the MVP trophy by disposing of LeBron James.
Julius Erving played 12 years as a pro, including ABA, to win an NBA crown and his failures that preceeded it were every bit as heartbreaking. His Philadelphia 76ers led the Boston Celtics in the East finals 3-1 and they lost the next three games by a total of five points.
For some, that moment of redemption will never come like this. It could be that Durant and Westbrook can't maximize their greatness with each other because of their styles. As important as having talent is when it comes to winning titles, so is that talent being the ideal fit with each other.
What would Durant look like next to a more traditional pass-first point guard such as a Mike Conley or John Wall? Unless there's a shakeup in Oklahoma City or he leaves in free agency to find that out, we'll never know.
But this is what is known: Losing in seven games of the conference finals to the best team for the last two years in the NBA isn't a choke but rather a hiccup. And hiccups can be cured.