Magic Johnson and Larry Bird lived charmed lives during their pro basketball careers. The second they threw on their NBA jerseys, they were playing alongside Hall of Famers. Magic might have won the 1980 Finals for the Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nursing a sprained ankle at his crib in SoCal, but that was one game. Kareem averaged 32 points, 12 boards and four blocks in those playoffs.
Virtually every other superstar of the past 30 years (I consider Stockton & Malone to be one person), has experienced at least one postseason where he wasn't flanked by another elite talent. At some point he had to throw a squad on his back and battle to advance. He had to go for dolo. It rarely ended well.
That’s where we are with Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook is out indefinitely with a torn meniscus in his right knee. KD now has the task of keeping the once conference favorites, on a championship path without his All-NBA partner. Westbrook might not have been an All-NBAer on the Thunder’s maiden voyage in the postseason (although he put up 20-6-6 on the eventual champ Lakers), but there were no expectations of the young squad in 2010. This is different.
Meaning in no way to callously disregard Westbrook in this new development, but his unfortunate injury gives us an opportunity to really see what kind of mettle KD is rockin’ with. Every superstar has shouldered this burden before.
Just check recent history. Michael Jordan before Scottie Pippen. Scottie in ’94. Barkley in Philly. Hakeem Olajuwon before Clyde. Clyde Drexler before Hakeem. Gary Payton after Shawn Kemp. Shaq when Kobe was a kid. Kobe after Shaq. Tim Duncan during David Robinson’s twilight. Jason Kidd in New Jersey. LeBron in Cleveland. Dwyane Wade after Shaq. Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. Allen Iverson in Philly. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul. Derrick Rose. Even Westbrook, in a peculiar way, has performed on an island in OKC – an island of public venom.
Some of those men fared better than others. All of them revealed a great deal about what kind of competitors they were. None of them got very far. Some even imploded or wilted under the pressure.
So it’s “show us what you got” time for KD. He can’t just be Baby Ice, any longer. He has to be fire and ice. The Thunder get a lot of their bravado from Russ. One dunk or block or sneer from Westbrook could often change the complexion of a game. During those stretches when teams try to manhandle KD and keep him from getting the ball, Russ would take matters into his own hands and get it done. Now, it’s all on Durant. Welcome to Carmelo's world.
Who knows who’s coming out of the West, now? Clearly, it is no longer the expectation that it will be OKC. But KD can make it so. He's that transcendent – or is he? If he delivers, it'll be without the public’s whipping boy, the Thunder’s swag-engine and his all-world running mate. All eyes on Kev'.