OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant’s legacy in Chesapeake Arena may very well hinge on what the Thunder do Monday night in Oakland, a Game 7 seemingly against all odds.
It can’t end like this.
No way Durant and Russell Westbrook go their separate ways after a finish like Saturday night. No way.
The disappointment of not winning an NBA championship is one thing. That’s like a promising racehorse never winning a Triple Crown event. Hey, it happens.
But losing like this — a grotesque stumble at the finish line, a majestic beast being put down as the audience weeps — is almost an injustice to the sport of basketball.
Durant, a nine-year NBA veteran, is a free agent at the end of this season, and it makes all the financial sense in the world for him to re-up with the Thunder for a year to maximize the 2017 salary cap and forthcoming television dollars and then sign a max-max contract next year wherever he wants.
But what if the 2016 Thunder season does conclude with another stinging loss to defending champ Golden State at Oracle Arena? The Warriors are a heavy favorite to close out this best-of-7 series at home. It seems all too likely.
“Win or go home,” Westbrook said. “Simple as that.”
OKC’s dynamic duo can’t conclude their time together with the stench that hung over them in the final five minutes of a 108-101 loss to the Warriors. Can they?
Maybe they can.
Hero Ball, it seems, is back. Maybe for good.
For all the great ball movement the Thunder did in taking a 3-1 lead in this series, for all the cutting Andre Roberson layups and pick-and-roll Steven Adams dunks and wide open Serge Ibaka jump shots, Game 6 came down to Durant and Westbrook going 2-against-5 on nearly every possession down the stretch.
It was an abject failure.
And for all the plaudits first-year coach Billy Donovan earned for outfoxing sideline sages Rick Carlisle of Dallas and Gregg Popovich of San Antonio, for all the savvy moves and clever adjustments Donovan made against Warriors whiz-kid Steve Kerr, it looked very much like Scott Brooks had returned to the Thunder bench during the last five minutes of both Game 5 and Game 6.
Hero Ball, someone ought to tell Durant and Westbrook, doesn’t work. Hero Ball is predictable. Hero Ball is all too defensible. Hero Ball is why Scott Brooks got fired.
Hero Ball stinks.
In the last five minutes on Saturday night, Durant and Westbrook combined to take four shots, score zero points and commit six turnovers. In that stretch, the only shot from someone other than Durant or Westbrook was a Roberson putback of a Durant miss with 2:22 left to gave OKC its final lead.
Durant was 0-for-3 from the floor with two turnovers. Westbrook turned it over on four of five possessions.
“They got some hands on some balls,” Westbrook said. “They trapped, made us make some decisions.”
On a night when Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson connected on an NBA playoff record 11 successful 3-point shots (he was 11-of-18) and scored 41 points, and on a night when two-time MVP Steph Curry scored 20 of his 29 in the second half — including two 3s in a 70-second span that tied it 99 after the Thunder had led 96-89 with 5:09 to go — OKC’s Hero Ball was a disaster.
The Warriors shot 44 times from outside the 3-point arc, and made 21 of them. The starting five was 21-of-39, or 54 percent.
The Thunder? A miserable 3-of-23.
In the fourth quarter, Durant was 1-of-7 from the floor, while Westbrook was 2-of-7.
“I wish I could have got a lot of those shots back,” Durant said. “I felt great on a lot of them, but that’s just how it is.”
It certainly didn’t help that OKC was playing against a team that, love them or hate them, play with the heart of a champion.
Sixth man Andre Iguodala had three steals in the final 3 ½ minutes. Curry —Westbrook just two days earlier snickered at a question about Curry’s defensive abilities, remember — swiped a pass from Westbrook in the final 13 seconds to clinch it.
And while OKC’s collar tightened in the fourth quarter (5-of-19 shooting, six turnovers), the Warriors thrived under pressure (11-of-22 shooting, one turnover). Golden State ended the game on a 9-0 run.
Donovan tried to clarify why the game plan devolved into dribble-dribble-dribble-fadeaway. Players didn’t roll to the basket when the Warriors switched on screens; he didn’t explain well enough in timeouts what he wanted them to do; everyone waited too long to start the play.
And when all that happens, Plan B is to get the ball to Durant and see if he can bail you out.
“We’ve made such great improvements coming down the stretch in terms of … doing a better job executing,” Donovan said. “We made some really nice positive strides over the last month and a half since the playoffs started, but I thought we got a little stagnant offensively, no question.”
Donovan acknowledged that maybe Durant and Westbrook were fatigued. They did play 45 and 44 minutes, respectively.
No big deal, Durant said.
“Our team needs us on the floor,” he said. “Us two on the floor, we give ourselves a great chance to win. So we’ve got to fight through it. It’s late in the season. Everybody’s gonna play their best players around this time. If we’ve got to play 48, we’ve got to play 48.”
Nothing wrong with the minutes Durant and Westbrook play. They do need to be on the floor at the end of games.
But not so they can play 2-on-5. It doesn’t work. They need to play smarter minutes — especially down the stretch — and recognize that the Warriors are able to defend them and just trust their teammates.
In Thursday’s 120-111 loss, Durant and Westbrook shot the ball 59 times (and made just 23). Saturday, they shot it 58 times (and made 20).
While Durant and Westbrook were hitting 3-of-14 in the fourth quarter, their teammates were 2-of-5.
“You have to have appropriate fear when you play these guys,” Thompson said, “because they can go off at any time.”
They can also, it seems, be shut down. Shut out.
That ultimately may be the biggest part of Durant’s legacy in OKC, that he was always capable of incomparable offensive explosions.
But fourth-quarter playoff meltdowns will be in there, too, somewhere.