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Art Garcia

In a little more than two seasons in the NBA, Kevin Durant is averaging 22.7 points a game.
Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

Durant still learning how to shoulder Thunder's burden

Posted Nov 6 2009 11:37AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant stood by his locker, looking almost unsure of his next move. Dressed and ready to go, the Thunder's hope slowly began making his way to the firing line.

He could have ducked his head and found an alternate route out of the team's plush new inner sanctuary --- a quick jab step right, to the hallway and freedom. Instead, he sauntered toward the media mass.

Clearly, Durant didn't want to talk. In a way, though, he must have, even after a performance that left him at a loss for words. His shot and poise had deserted him not long before in an overtime loss to the Lakers. But there he stood, bearing more than the weight of one setback on his rail-thin shoulders.

He let himself down. He let his teammates down. And that latter responsibility, to his teammates and, in a larger sense, to the franchise, is what's most important.

"The kind of person he is," Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti says, "allows us to build methodically."

Durant wants the pressure. He aspires to share the stage with Kobe and LeBron. He longs for the day when his team is playing in late June. So when he suffers a meltdown like Tuesday night against the Lakers, it's both surprising yet not unexpected. Cruising along with 28 points through three quarters, matching one of his basketball heroes, Kobe Bryant, shot for shot, Durant went subarctic.

His last five shots hit more air than iron. He committed three turnovers. Worse than that, he passed-up open looks and threw off-target passes.

Durant had the ball with less than 10 seconds left with the score tied at 90. Lakers center Andrew Bynum had switched and was in Durant's way. Instead of taking the burly 7-footer off the dribble, drawing a foul or just getting a closer look, Durant took his seventh 3-pointer of the night. The previous six missed. This near 30-footer never had a chance.

It was Durant's first shot since the end of the third quarter. He misfired four more times in overtime, not scoring in either the fourth or the extra session. The Thunder had fought the champs for 53 minutes. That offered little consolation for Durant.

"I missed shots," he mumbled.

Players his age -- Durant is 21 -- aren't supposed to hurt this much. He has another 15 years, at least, ahead to chase his NBA dreams. He has to be realistic not only about his youth and inexperience but all of it that surrounds him. There's no shame in someone just starting his third season not getting it done every night.

But Durant believes he should. He's hardly satisfied by the 2-0 start and two hard-fought losses (Blazers and Lakers) that followed. Catching up with his college coach a couple of weeks back, Durant mapped out his team's plan for this season. Remember, this is a team that lost 121 games during Durant's first two years in the league.

"He had me convinced they can win the NBA championship," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "That's the way he thinks."

Durant, with a career scoring average (22.7) exceeding his age, patterns his game after Bryant and LeBron James. "I watch them on how they play the game and how they lead their teams on both ends of the floor," Durant said. Bryant has had his share of forgettable moments -- three air balls to close out a first-round loss to Utah as a rookie -- so he knows what Durant is going through.

Asked if he had any encouraging words for No. 35, Bryant smiled widely. His eyes said more than his answer.

"Hell no. He don't need no [bleeping] advice from me," he said before heading to the showers. "That [double bleep] is good enough already."

Durant may yet get his advice from Bryant, though the youngster may have to wait for summer when USA Basketball reconvenes. The Thunder and Lakers meet three more times this season, and Bryant isn't one to give a foe any help in the middle of trying to win another title. But it's obvious the respect is there.

Durant's demeanor draws comparison to another MVP. Tim Duncan is a frequent topic of conversation in Oklahoma City due to the franchise's ties to the Spurs. Team chairman Clay Bennett and Presti, among others, spent significant time in San Antonio.

"They're both terrific players and very humble," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Duncan and Durant. "That's a great characteristic of the players that are special in this league. You understand that the team is greater than your individual skills and Kevin fits in that category."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Durant: "He's got a great sense of place. He doesn't need to beat his chest or yell and scream or spit and spew, he just plays the game like he's been there before and he does it with class."

Duncan is equally impressed.

"He keeps his composure and is one heck of a scorer," the two-time MVP said. "He's got a lot on his shoulders and he's doing well with it. He's going to be a great player in this league for a long time. As he continues to develop, I think he'll be ready to carry that load."

Durant doesn't exclude his teammates from the spotlight. And that goes beyond the Thunder's other two headliners, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Durant couldn't say enough about the addition of journeyman point guard Kevin Ollie recently. "You always learn from a guy like that," Durant said.

"If you're always about yourself -- I did this, I did that -- your teammates read headlines, too," he said. "If they hear that, it pushes them away. That's one thing we don't want here. We don't want a divided locker room. It's so good right now. We're all brothers."

Durant doesn't expect more from just himself. He wants more from his team, and for it, to justify the franchise's direction. He expects the playoffs and beyond.

"I really do," Durant said. "That's my job is to think my team is going to win. I can't think anything else because I'm the captain. They feed off my energy. You have to think that before you go out there and do it."

Durant will not shy away from his job, his responsibility, his purpose with the Thunder. That's why he was hurting so much Tuesday night. That's why he didn't duck his postgame duties.

That's why he'll get better.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here.

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