Durant and Rose: No pain, no gain
Rising stars Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose have learned key lessons this postseason
DALLAS -- Not only is Kevin Durant not ready, he's not ready to hear he's not ready.
I gave him the only description that applied to the Thunder in the last two games -- the one in which they blew a 15-point lead in the final five minutes to lose Game 4, and the one in which they had the turnovers and the missed shots while the Mavericks got the loose balls and big makes to end the series in Game 5: too young.
"That's no excuse," Durant said.
Actually, it is.
Your time will come, I told Durant.
"It's supposed to be our time now," he said.
Actually, it isn't.
Teams as young as the Thunder don't win championships. They just don't. The average age of the top six players in Oklahoma City's rotation is 23.7 years. If you look at the "Age of Champions" chart that accompanied this story from two years ago, you'll see that none of the past 30 champions has had an average age of under 26. Most are about 28. (Since that chart ran, the 2009 Lakers won at age 27.5.)
One of the reasons young teams don't win is because they have young stars. Young stars let things happen when they should be making things happen. Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James are making sure their teams win. Durant and Rose are allowing their teams to lose.
We shouldn't think of this as the NBA playoffs when it comes to guys like Durant and Rose. It's more like watching your kids in the school play: hope for some highlights, but be ready for painful moments.
After seeing Rose and the Bulls go down 3-1 and Durant and the Thunder go out -- on back-to-back nights -- I learned what they learned: One of the greatest challenges of advancing in the playoffs is that opponents are increasingly locked in to your tendencies. There aren't multiple scouting reports to digest and multiple cities to get to during the course of the week right now. It's all about dissecting the tendencies of a single player and team, then adjusting over the course of a series. It's the difference between walking quickly through the airport metal detector or hearing the dreaded "bag check" or "male assist."
"Now, every detail you look at, you really know the person's offense, defense," Rose said.
Rose and Durant each made his first trip beyond the first round this year.
"It changes a lot," Durant said. "Teams have been watching on TV the first two rounds, knowing what you do, and knowing they might have a chance to play you, and they switch everything up as the series goes along."
Durant didn't develop a reflexive move or post-up spot when Dallas defended him with Jason Kidd. When LeBron James guarded Rose, the point guard was spooked by the fact that LeBron is not only taller but also fast enough to chase him down. Every defender or defensive scheme has a weakness, but these two players haven't seen enough different looks to recognize them right away.
That Oklahoma City is done and the Bulls are one game from elimination shouldn't define Durant and Rose. It's not that they can't win, it's that they haven't won. These breakdowns are bookmarks, not home addresses.
Durant had his moments in Game 5. With 4½ minutes left, he started at the top of the key and got all the way to the basket for a layup that gave the Thunder a six-point lead. A minute later, Durant made his move to the left side, stopping on the block and going straight up against the shorter Kidd.
Durant has added to his playoff résumé with 41 points in a closeout Game 5 against the Nuggets and 39 points and nine rebounds in a Game 7 win against the Grizzlies. It took 48 points on almost-perfect shooting from Dirk Nowitzki to outshine the 40 Durant dropped in Game 1 of the conference finals.
Rose set a career high with 44 points against the Hawks last round. But he's also watched his shooting percentage drop from 45 percent in the regular season to 40 percent in the playoffs, including only 23 makes in his past 69 shots. He had seven turnovers in Game 4 and missed seven of his last eight shots. MVPs aren't supposed to have two bad games in a row; Rose's count is up to three.
Nothing says these guys are supposed to figure it out right away.
It took Michael Jordan four years to get past the first round of the playoffs and five to get to the level Rose and Durant have achieved this year, the conference finals. Durant is in Year 4, Rose in Year 3.
Rose tried to take a fallaway shot over a taller player on the final play of regulation in Game 4. Durant's mistake was letting someone else take a critical shot over a taller player. He should have gotten the ball out of Eric Maynor's hands when Maynor made one of the worst decisions of the game by trying to shoot over the 9-inches-taller Dirk Nowitzki in the final minute of the game.
Durant needs to invoke what I call the Shoe Rule: The only players who should be taking the shots at the end of playoff games are the guys who have their own line of signature shoes. (Certain players are eligible to apply for the Horry Exception, but Maynor isn't one of them.)
Stars have every right to run to the man with the ball (as Kobe Bryant did to set up this game-tying shot in the 2004 NBA Finals) or fight off their defender to get open (see Reggie Miller versus MJ in the 1998 playoffs).
And stars have every right to demand help. The greats who won championships by Durant's age did so by playing alongside the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (for Magic Johnson) and David Robinson (for Tim Duncan).
Both Rose and Durant could use a surefire shooting guard, someone guaranteed to deliver points on a nightly basis. Like their rosters, their games could still stand some improvement. More comfort spots on the court for scoring, and a better ability to get to them. The ability to slow the game down, and avoid turnovers. And more than anything, reps.
Ultimately, that's what these playoffs have been about for them. Getting more experience in these situations, learning the amount the intensity increases as April turns to May.
They must be doing something right already for Shane Battier to send out this tweet Wednesday night: "Of all the young guys, I respect @KDthunderup [Durant] and D.Rose the most. The[y] respect the game and those who play it."
These playoffs shouldn't be viewed as strictly losses for them. As you can tell by Battier's tweet, they gained something along the way.
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