Kevin Durant has been the best player of the NBA playoffs to date. He's averaging 32 points with a .594 true shooting percentage (ridiculous), nine rebounds and six assists. Yet the Oklahoma City Thunder need to win three straight to survive the second round after Monday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. KD stands on the precipice of being eliminated four weeks too early, as Tony Allen and friends hassled him into a 10-27 shooting night.
The script dictates that someone will question Durant's greatness. Would Jordan allow his team to lose in the second round? (Yes. 1988.) Would LeBron? (Yes. 2006, 2008, 2010.) It's a tired old battle in which a select group of fools denies transcendent stars their respect until they actually win a championship, as if the trophy rewarding the best team says all that can be said about individual greatness. Once OKC is eliminated, if not sooner, those predictable fools will venture out from their holes to admonish KD for not being good enough, all while ignoring the bigger lessons.
And those lessons are about Russell Westbrook and the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies' lesson is pretty straightforward: fierce, smart defense can overcome a spastic offense when you have two paint monsters and a creative, fearless point guard. Consider this: the Thunder defense was built to stop the Lakers' twin towers of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, with three stoppers in the frontcourt. (Until this season, OKC also had Nazr Mohammed up there. He was swapped out for Hasheem Thabeet.) That Thunder defense built to battle size is struggling to slow Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Gasol has had four brilliant games in this series, averaging 22 points while shooting just better than 50 percent. Z-Bo had a rough Game 3 but is still averaging 16 per game against Serge Ibaka, a guy consistently recognized as one of the league's top defenders. Mike Conley been more of a mixed bag. He shot 7-21 on Monday, but offered up four threes and six made free throws, which were critical additions to a Memphis offense that is almost always going to need to just get by. OKC had one of the best defenses in the NBA this season, yet now they are struggling to stop a largely mediocre Memphis offense because the Grizzlies are playing their tails off and because Gasol is playing better than ever before. Memphis' elite defense has been up to the task, too; that combination is devastating for any opponent, even the mighty Thunder.
But it's impossible to look at the path of this series and ignore Westbrook.
Durant has done more than ever -- his usage rate in the postseason is now up to 31.9 percent. (That means that 31.9 percent of all Thunder possessions are ending in a Durant field goal, turnover or drawn foul.) Among starters who have played more than two games this postseason, that's second behind only Carmelo Anthony (38 percent). And Melo's current postseason usage rate is the highest in history using a 200-minute minimum, according to Basketball-Reference. So Durant is doing a lot for OKC's offense. And, as we noted in the very first paragraph, he's doing it extremely well. Game 4 was by far his least efficient game of the postseason; he mixed poor shooting and few free throws (three), which is rare for KD.
Durant's minutes per game have increased by five in the postseason, and his usage rate is up two percent. Who else is picking up the slack in Westbrook's absence?
Let's start with Perk, who is basically invisible on offense except for on the offensive glass. Per 36 minutes in the regular season, he took six FGAs, a free throw and had two turnovers. Per 36 minutes in the playoffs, he's shooting with the same (in)frequency but turning the ball over twice as frequently. That's a bad usage increase.
Collison took about seven FGAs, two FTAs and had 1.6 turnovers per 36 in the regular season. In the playoffs, he's taking nine FGAs, three FTAs and maintaining his turnover rate. His efficiency has dropped quite a bit with those extra shots (and tougher opposing defense in the second round), but that's not necessarily a bad usage increase, because Collison is still pretty efficient at the new level. It's certainly better than Perkins.
During the regular season, Martin took 13 FGAs, four FTAs and had 1.7 turnovers per 36. In the playoffs, he's at 15 FGAs and five FTAs with a stable turnover rate. But those extra shots, tougher defense and heavier opponent focus in the absence of Westbrook has led Martin's True Shooting percentage to go from an excellent .608 in the regular season to a rough .514 in the playoffs.
No other Thunderer has expanded his role. Reggie Jackson has only seen his minutes grow; he's doing roughly the same on a per-minute basis. So in the end you have Durant taking a few additional possessions and doing KD things with them. You have Perk coughing up the ball more. You have Collison taking a couple more shots and seeing his efficiency fall. And you have Martin taking a few more shots and seeing his efficiency plummet.
Durant has been as good as ever in these playoffs, taking the ball in his hands more than ever. But the rest of the Thunder can't crack the Grizzlies' defense enough to get OKC wins. The next time you question the value of Westbrook taking so many shots, remember this series. Remember that Durant needs help (like every other NBA star in history), and remember that this team is not built to provide that absent Westbrook. Maybe that's a retroactive argument against trading James Harden, who can handle more than Martin. But this is the team OKC has now, and it needs Russ desperately.