If you asked me a month ago to rank the top title contender in the Western Conference, my pick would have unanimously been the Oklahoma City Thunder– leading by a large margin. But after the Thunder blew a 18-point, fourth-quarter lead against the Los Angeles Lakers and fell 114-106 in a thrilling double-overtime game at Staples Center on Sunday, Kevin Durant and company may not be ready to be regarded as championship contenders.
Failure to close out games is a flaw that could push the Thunder’s championship clock back another season if they’re not careful. This was the third consecutive loss the Thunder suffered because they simply could not close the door. Once again, a severe offensive drought cost the Thunder, with this time being a 9-for-36 shooting performance in the fourth quarter and overtimes, while the Lakers outscored them 53-29 in the final 22 minutes of play. KD and Westbrook combined to shoot dreadful14-of-56 for the game. And in the fourth quarter and double-overtime, the All-Star duo went an alarming 6-for-28, as Durant was 5-of-19 over that span. The loss reiterated that OKC’s athletic, dynamic and youthful squad has some maturing to do.
The Thunder should have closed the Lakers out to wrap up their five-game road trip with an impressive 4-1 record heading into the final two regular season games, but instead they have to endure a blow that is much bigger than the cheap shot James Harden took to the head from Metta World Peace. OKC dropped to 3-2 on the trip and fell a game-and-a-half behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the West, and now must enter the postseason facing familiar questions about their ability to get to the next level.
Despite the loss, Durant finally passed Bryant in the race for both superstars’ third NBA scoring title. Durant, who is the reigning two-time scoring champion, is averaging 27.906 points with two OKC games remaining in the regular season, while Bryant –the league’s top scorer for nearly the entire regular season– leaned back to second place at 27.862 points per game with just a game left for the Lakers. In the grand scheme of things, Bryant could careless about securing a third scoring title when he’s focused on winning his sixth championship. With Kobe chasing history and legends, it will be difficult for Durant to finally leap over such a towering hurdle this season. Kobe maybe willingly to surrender the scoring title to Durant, but he will not concede in his pursuit of number six.
Kobe defied rationale again and powered the Lakers late-game surge –after being down by as much as 18 points– with impossible shot after impossible shot to steal Sunday’s game against the Thunder. Instead of resting his injured shin during the last few games of the season, Bryant stepped up before the game and asked to guard Westbrook. As defensive assignments go – Westbrook torched the Lakers for 36 points in their last meeting three weeks ago– Bryant wanted the burden of slowing down one of the league’s top guards. It was a challenge he met head on, and defeated, as Westbrook shot a woeful 3-for-22 from the floor.
There will come a time when things will change for Kevin Durant and the Thunder. When Kobe Bryant skills have diminished and Durant’s meteoric rise will ascend to new heights. When the Black Mamba won’t be able to rescue the Lakers from impossible odds with a barrage of difficult shots and tenacious defense. When the only player that can stand in Durant’s way, will be himself. Michael Jordan became great once he was finally able to get past Isaiah Thomas and the bad boy Detroit Pistons in the early ‘90s. Now, Durant must elevate his game to do what MJ did for the Bulls. Until, KD can lead OKC passed Kobe and the Lakers the question will remain – is he ready?