Posted Apr 21 2010 3:50AM
LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Durant was in deep. Not Ron Artest deep, either. We're talking real confrontation. Standing in the hallway outside the visitor's locker room an hour before tipoff Tuesday, back against the wall, facing about 20 reporters fanned out in a semi-circle, microphones jabbing toward him. Questions hitting him square.
Durant hits back. This is Game 2 of the first-round series against the Lakers, but, big picture, the NBA's newly minted superstar struggling with the expectations that accompany the promotion. It's a package deal, and the package is ticking.
One bad game, against a defensive savant at that, and Durant learned that that banner as youngest scoring champion in league history is worth nothing in the playoffs. That was the regular season. Sunday against Artest and the Lakers was the start of the regular season.
That's what made Tuesday so pivotal for Durant, more pivotal than even the Thunder trying to avoid an insurmountable 0-2 deficit. Oklahoma City was underdogs no matter what. But K.D. had to be able to push back at Artest or face the consequences of more questions and the resulting national storyline about whether he was ready for the close up.
He scored 32 points, but on 12-for-26 shooting. He made 3-for-6 from behind the arc, but missed a straight-away 3-pointer under tight coverage by Artest with about 10 seconds remaining and the Thunder down two. He had eight rebounds and four blocks, but one assist and eight turnovers. The Thunder lost 95-92 at Staples Center.
It was a twisted night like that. Kobe Bryant had five of his shots blocked. The Lakers won despite shooting 37.5 percent and committing 16 turnovers. In a critical moment of the fourth quarter, with Oklahoma City down four with a little more than a minute left, Durant got stripped from behind by Artest on a double team. There was even Durant, usually accommodating and grounded, getting combative.
Facing the semi-circle before the game did it. Questions about what the last two days were like, after getting handled by Artest and all. Another round of inquiries about his turn in the Phil Jackson Psych Lab, where the Lakers coach got everyone focusing on Durant's free throws by suggesting the scoring champ benefitted from the superstar treatment, a platform that would have had a lot more credibility if it hadn't come a few days after the Thunder lost a game in large part because of a missed call when Durant was fouled on last-second shot.
All part of the process. This is his new world.
"It's been like that the whole season," he said of the scrutiny. "People are looking for the bad things I do. That's what happens with a lot of guys in this league. That's a part of everything. I've got to learn how to not worry about that and just play my game."
In reality, the league and everyone around it are throwing rose petals at his feet. In Oklahoma, he's a state treasure after two seasons.
"Do you feel you overreacted when Phil Jackson made those comments last week, before the series started, about you going to the foul line too many times?" one reporter asked. "He was probably trying to get into your head maybe. Do you feel like you overreacted or ..."
"You feel like I overreacted?" Durant interrupted in sharp tones.
"I don't know," the reporter said. "There were some people out there who said that ..."
Durant interrupted again.
"You one of them?"
"No, not me."
"Why?" Durant said, "Because I'm a third-year player I can't say nothing back to Phil Jackson?"
Different reporter: "Some of the shots that you took Sunday had a lot of people, like the national analysts, like [Charles] Barkley and those guys, saying that you settled, you forced [shots]. Did you learn a lesson from that to handle your frustration with your performance a little better tonight?"
"I've been shooting those shots all season," Durant said incredulously. "I guess if I shot it bad, everything went wrong. Everything I did was wrong. But I'm going to go out there and still be aggressive, still take what the defense gives me. Hopefully, I come out there and just play a little harder and continue to have confidence in myself that I'm going to hit those shots this game. They can say what they want. I've just gotta move on."
"Was yesterday and today hard for you to swallow?"
"No," Durant said. "Not at all. Because it's a seven-game series."
At least he hopes it is. The Thunder head home to a great home crowd down 0-2 and knowing they missed at least one good chance to win here and maybe even two considering the margin of defeat in Game 1 was eight. They missed opportunities. They missed shots. Now, they're all in deep.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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