The saddest press conference there ever was took place in 2007 when Dirk Nowitzki was awarded the Most Valuable Player award, just 10 days after his 67-win Mavericks were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the We Believe Warriors.
Normally, the league's MVP is awarded the trophy before a playoff game in front of a hopped-up hometown crowd. Thanks to the Mavs' untimely exit, this one began with Mark Cuban choking back tears and Nowitzki saying, "At this stage it's a little hard for me to be happy. This is an award for the regular season. That's the way I got to look at it." It was funereal and equal parts bleak and surreal. It seemed likely that we would not see anything like it again anytime soon.
KD for MVP
KD for MVP
And yet we are very close to this sort of thing happening again. Kevin Durant, this year's presumptive MVP, is one game away from elimination. That game will be played in Memphis on Thursday night, as 20,000 people chant "Whoop Dat Trick" while Tony Allen unleashes all the hellhounds on Durant's trail.
If the Thunder lose Thursday, it will be a disaster. They won 59 games and flirted with Best Team in the League status at times during the regular season. It would also be the second consecutive postseason of diminishing returns with a second-round loss to the very same Grizzlies hanging over their heads from last season.
Last postseason's setback was brought on in large part by Russell Westbrook's knee injury, which forced Durant to become a one-man show. In many ways it was KD's finest hour. He played 228 of a possible 245 minutes, scored twice as many points as anyone else on the roster, and he led the team in rebounds and assists to keep the series far more competitive than it should have been.
But Westbrook is healthy again, and there are no excuses for OKC this time around. The roster is stocked with young talent and hearty veterans, and let's face it; MVP's ain't supposed to go out like that. Durant was taken to task by Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel, who wrote:
Trouble is, Durant's aggression and positive attitude come and go. His shoulders have dipped repeatedly during rough stretches of this streetfight. His effort is spotty. His confidence is shaken.
That's not appropriate for a 25-year-old superstar. A 21-year-old star? Sure. When Durant made just 35 percent of his shots in that six-game Laker series in 2010, we knew it was growing pains. Knew that Durant was being hounded by Ron Artest, the Tony Allen of yesteryear, a guy who sold out to defense and could stage Les Miserables for even the sharpest of shooters.
Leaving aside the tortured allusion to 19th-Century French social upheaval, Tramel's critique basically begins and ends with the notion that this kind of performance is unbecoming of a superstar, let alone an MVP.
Never mind that Magic was once Tragic, or that 26-year-old Larry Bird was swept in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks, or that Jordan didn't win his first title until he was 28, or that Hakeem's Rockets didn't break through until he was 31. Forget all that stuff happened to LeBron James, or Dirk's role in the Saddest Presser Ever.
Never mind that at age 25, Durant has already carried the Thunder to the conference finals and the Finals. He's become "Mr. Unreliable," according to the headline splashed across the front page of the Oklahoman:
Lots of teams positioning themselves to lure "Mr. Unreliable" in 2016. Cool headline, though: pic.twitter.com/iL6ZXVt6bt— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 1, 2014
Tramel also has the obligatory Jordan reference. He points to Jordan's valiant, but doomed, effort against the Pistons at the height of the "Jordan Rules" era that saw Detroit focus all of its collective might on grounding MJ. On that, he has a point. Look at the way the Grizzlies have defended Durant throughout the series:
Kevin Durant’s series in one screenshot. pic.twitter.com/WZt5Dktqeq— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 30, 2014
More of Memphis’ "Durant Rules." pic.twitter.com/ST7JTH7MfL— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 30, 2014
No wonder his shoulders are sagging.
But Tramel also missed the obvious subtext, which is that the Bulls didn't start winning championships until Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause replaced their successful -- and in many ways capable -- coach with one who had a plan to get past the Pistons and bring out the best in his young superstar.
Thunder on the Brink
Thunder on the Brink
Perhaps the fault lies less with Durant and more with an offensive scheme that relies almost exclusively on Durant and Westbrook creating shots for themselves. Perhaps it rests on Scott Brooks' reliance on unimaginative lineups that lean heavily on veterans at the expense of the talented younger players buried on the bench.
As a point of fact, Durant has not been good in this series. He's shooting 40 percent overall and making only 28 percent of his shots from behind the arc. When he does get to the line, he's missed 11 free throws, including one very important one at the end of Game 5 when Joey Crawford Mutombo'd him just before he was set to tie the game and send it into a second overtime.
If the Thunder lose Game 6, there will be hell to pay and Durant will catch his share. That comes with the territory, and superstars from Magic to LeBron have been forced to deal with it in their careers. The larger issue rests with OKC's collective failure to evolve and to develop a plan of attack that goes beyond waiting for Russ and KD to save them.
As for "Mr. Unreliable," the line to secure his services in two years when he becomes a free agent forms at the left. You can almost hear the teams clearing cap space now.