Kevin Durant against the world

Ronald Martinez

Kevin Durant needed to be superhuman for the Oklahoma City Thunder to advance in the playoffs after Russell Westbrook's injury. Durant has been ... and it still might not be enough.

Kevin Durant never asked for this. He never tried to do it himself or create a bigger stage for his talents and he never argued for more shots or exposure. In not doing any of these things, Durant unwittingly became something of a small-market hero and crusader for all that is good and just. He never asked for that either.

Those roles were assigned to him by a superficial media hungering for easy narratives like so much cheap deadline prose, yet he handled them by exhibiting an even greater grace and humility, and the legend only grew. There does not appear to be any phony artifice there. Just a dedicated craftsman, almost Jedi-like in his devotion to his game and genuinely seeming like good dude. Durant is the uncomplicated star, the one every other franchise wishes they had.

Now, he stands at something of a milestone moment in his young career. Through no fault of his own, Durant finds himself in the unforgiving realm of the lone superstar on a mission that only he can finish. Without his brilliant, but star-crossed sidekick, the full weight of expectations falls heavily on his wispy shoulders.

Durant has a center who can't catch and point guard who is learning on the job. He has a veteran scorer with little playoff experience who can't make shots consistently and a third option who suddenly needs to play like a secondary star. The odds have always been skewed in his favor. Now, they are stacked heavily against him.

It is in these moments that Durant's true genius has been revealed. Without James Harden, he produced the finest season of his career and one of the great shooting seasons of all time. Without Russell Westbrook, he has been arguably the best player in the playoffs, averaging 35.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists and a 30.5 PER that's higher than LeBron James.

He gamely carried the Thunder past Houston in the first round after Westbrook went down and he also managed to steal a game against Memphis all by himself in a Game 1 performance that may have been his finest to date, considering the stakes. In two games against the Grizzlies, a team perfectly constructed to make his life miserable, Durant's scored 71 points, grabbed 26 rebounds and handed out 15 assists while making over 50 percent of his shots.

This is what we've all been waiting for from Durant, and he's been even better than we hoped. There's also a very good chance that it's not nearly enough.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

That Durant never had to force change the way so many other young superstars have done is part of the charming allure of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the basketball oasis built from scratch by Sam Presti. The general manager worked through the draft, adding Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka in successive years, cultivating young talent and allowing them to grow on their own terms.

This is the platonic ideal of roster construction, and Presti was able to forge a blueprint that is both impossible to replicate and methodically pure in a league where most rebuilding projects are non-linear and complex. There were no quick-fix free agent signings that crippled cap space and upset the locker room balance, or fights over turf that doom so many young teams.

While the rest of the world waited for Durant and Westbrook to split over petty differences, they simply forged ahead with each carving out room for the other to excel. That's a credit to both of them, although it's worth noting that Durant has received far more praise for this than the enigmatic Westbrook in this area.

Their path was refreshingly straight-forward. From hard-charging up-and-comers to conference finalists to NBA Finals in the span of three years, the Thunder absorbed their lessons as all young teams must do and made progress each year.

We thought that it could go on forever, collective bargaining agreements and luxury taxes be damned. This was naive, of course. By the time Presti locked up Westbrook and Ibaka, it was only a matter of time before something had to give, namely Harden.

The deal that Presti made with the Rockets felt -- and still feels -- like it was one step ahead of the curve. He got high draft picks, young talent and a serviceable player on a short-term deal in Kevin Martin. It's easy to say now that Presti could have waited and made a similar trade for Harden, but there's no guarantee that any other team could have even approached the bundle of assets that Houston had to give at the time.

The price may ultimately include a shot at a championship, but there's no way to ever tell for sure. In the moment, it was the right decision, and it may look even better years from now. But we do don't have years. In the high-pressure crucible of the postseason, there is only now.

If the Thunder fail, coach Scott Brooks will take the most heat. He's had four and a half years to develop an offense that didn't rely so heavily on Durant's uncanny shotmaking and Westbrook's mercurial ability to create. The results thus far have been unconvincing. The Thunder have given us more of the same and only Durant's supernatural talent has been able to sustain them.

OKC can't continue down this path and expect to emerge on the other side.

This calls for something unconventional, a smaller lineup or a subtle tweak in the offensive structure. It may be beyond Brooks' sideline acumen, and the talent that he has to work with may simply not be good enough. But OKC can't continue down this path and expect to emerge on the other side.

Unless, of course, Durant can do the impossible. Unless he can be even better than we thought. He didn't ask for this, but this is his challenge.

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