Friday, May 27, 2011

Kevin Durant and The Thunder Have Reached The Point of No Return

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened to the Thunder.

It could have happened when they added Kendrick Perkins to an already impressive roster, it could have happened when Russell Westbrook emerged as a legitimate star alongside Kevin Durant, or it might have even happened when the they blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead in game four of the Western Conference Finals, but one thing is for sure, the Thunder have reached the point of no return.

It was just a matter of time before a team this talented, young, and promising, reached a place where they would be criticized for every set they ran, every mistake they made would be magnified, and rumors about tension in the locker room would fly around the internet and television alike.  It was also just a matter of time before Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder would be expected to challenge for an NBA title.

And that time is now.

If these expectations seem a little premature for such a young team that looked downright bewildered at times during the Western Conference Finals, consider the fact that traditional Western Conference powers like the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks are all getting older while a Thunder team whose star players are well under the age of 25 have their best years ahead of them. 

It's an all too familiar place for extremely talented teams and players to find themselves getting criticized when they don't live up to their potential, and there's little doubt that great things should be expected of the Thunder in the near future.  But as any great team or player will tell you, things are only going to get tougher for Oklahoma City from this point forward, both on and off the court.

Regardless of whether or not this team is ready for the lofty expectations and subsequent media backlash which will follow them around for the foreseeable future, there's no turning back now.  Not after a team this young which features two of the best players in the NBA and a more than capable supporting cast went to the Western Conference Finals.  The Thunder's identity has changed, they are no longer that up-and-coming young team who will have time to develop and gain experience while preparing themselves to win in the playoffs.    

They are now a team who is expected to win and not play like the 22 or 23 year-olds that they currently are.  Or at least that's the way the media reacted to their 4-1 series loss at the hands of a more experienced and poised Dallas Mavericks team in the Western Conference Finals.  In all actuality, the Thunder are an exciting up-and-coming collection of players, but too much is expected of this team for them to fail to execute down the stretch of a hotly contested playoff game or for Russell Westbrook to make a bad decision and not get slammed for doing so.

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
And when you start looking at all the pieces on this team, why shouldn't we expect a lot from them?

Kevin Durant is a freak of nature who can basically score at will, Russell Westbrook has matured into a player who can take over a game and still has plenty of room to grow, Serge Ibaka is just starting to scratch the surface of his ability on both sides of the court, James Harden is quietly developing into a very reliable scoring option with plenty of depth to his game, and adding Kendrick Perkins to the mix was like putting an ill-tempered 280 pound cherry on top of it all.

As we saw during their series against the Mavericks, these guys aren't perfect and they have their weaknesses, but the future of this team is very bright.

Of course, with everything I just mentioned comes expectations and consequences, both of which the Thunder got a taste of this postseason.  Before the playoffs started, the Thunder weren't a soap opera that played itself out on the court every night, they were simply an entertaining young team that was a breath of fresh air for most basketball fans who were getting tired of the same three or four franchises dominating year in and year out.  But after you win a couple of playoff series, your team is suddenly in the spotlight and we witnessed first hand how much strain this can put on a young group of players. 
There's no way to prepare for it because this kind of adversity doesn't exist when you're not a contender- but when you find yourself in the Western Conference Finals, suddenly Russell Westbrook is a ball hog (even though he's been playing like this all season and no one's said anything), there's a rift between him and Durant (even though they've done nothing but say the right things and stick up for each other through everything that's happened), Scott Brooks can't coach, and Kendrick Perkins should be benched (even though his acquisition was a major reason why many people thought they could make a run through the playoffs).

At times, things that happen on the court are twisted around to generate as much buzz and controversy as possible, so instead of a story reading like: "Kevin Durant had a hard time separating from the tough Mavericks defense," it will read like "Russell Westbrook thinks he's a better player than Kevin Durant and doesn't want to pass him the ball in crunch time."

These are the types of things that come up when you endure growing pains during the Western Conference Finals as opposed to a seven game stretch in mid-February.  Essentially, the Thunder got the keys to the sports car before they knew how to drive and their struggles this postseason, which were a product of trying to learn on the fly, were painfully obvious.  At the same time, it wasn't just that Oklahoma City lost to the Mavericks, it was how they lost.

Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America
Even though the series ended with the Mavericks winning in five games, the Thunder made a habit of teasing NBA fans by playing up to their immense potential for three and a half quarters only to have everything fall apart in the last few minutes of the game. 

Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, and the rest of this athletic and exciting roster traded blows with an extremely hot Mavericks team and an out of his mind Dirk Nowitzki, and actually held leads in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes to play in three of the five games of the series.  Of course, we all know what happened next and leads were blown, unflattering comments have been made, and in spite of it all, such immense talent seems to be on the brink of being realized. 

Anyone who watched this series knows that the Thunder are a few tweaks away from becoming a special team and because we've already witnessed them at their best only to see them fall short, we now know what they're capable of.  And just like a father who knows how talented his child is, NBA fans won't accept anything less from the Thunder from here on out.

They've reached the point of no return, and after a trip to the Western Conference Finals, there's no going back now.

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