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NBA Sunday: Kevin Durant’s Big Lesson

Kevin Durant had an unusual lesson to learn in the first round … Will the real Roy Hibbert please stand up?

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It seems strange to talk about an established NBA super star and perennial MVP candidate learning an important lesson at this stage of his career. After all, since being drafted with the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft Kevin Durant has been one of the best players in the league, with a list of honors and awards that have him headed for the Hall of Fame. And yet, despite being a five-time NBA All-Star (and an All-Star MVP in 2012), a four-time scoring leader and a All-NBA First Team member and with one trip to the NBA Finals under his belt, over the last week this basketball phenom had to adapt to something he had never before faced.

He had to learn to ignore criticism from the media.

As amazing as Durant is on the basketball court, he’s even better off of it. Ever-mindful of his role model status and as humble as he is unstoppable, Durant has enjoyed the status of media darling for most of his basketball life. That changed, however, when his Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves down 3-2 to the Memphis Grizzlies and on he brink of elimination in the first round of this year’s playoffs. A local Oklahoma headline had labeled Durant “Mr. Unreliable,” anticipating a premature exit for a team that was supposed to be headed back to the Finals.

To be fair, the Grizzlies were anything but a typical seventh seed this year. Coming off of a season in which they were the fourth seed in the brutally tough Western Conference, the Grizzlies struggled with injuries for much of the season. They got healthy and hit their stride late in the season, just in time to make a run to make the playoffs. So in a way, the 2-7 matchup in the West was more like a Western Conference Finals battle, and the dramatic, overtime-laden series reflected that. One of the best defensive teams in the league, Memphis got under Durant’s skin and forced him out of his comfort zone, ultimately inspiring the aforementioned headline.

As all great players do, however, Durant took a long look in the mirror and worked his way through his early struggles in the series. With his team on the brink, Durant poured in 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help the Thunder even their series at three games apiece, after which he scored 33 points and shot 67 percent from the field as OKC eliminated the Grizzlies and advanced to the second round.

Afterwards, Durant admitted that he had allowed the criticism from the media to mess with his game.

“I got out of my own way,” he said after Game 7. “I was thinking too much, I was worried about what you guys [in the media] were saying. I was worried about how many shots I was going to shoot throughout the game. I was thinking too much. The game of basketball is played on instincts and I realized I started playing this game to have fun and I didn’t want to take the pure fun out of the game. I was thinking too much, so I just released everything and enjoyed and I knew if played as hard as I could and did the work for my team the results were going to show. I just forgot everything and played my game.”

Another mark of a great player is that they continue to evolve and grow, learning which criticism to take to heart and which to simply ignore. As surprising as it was to see questionable criticism aimed at one of the best players in the world, it came as no surprise whatsoever when he overcame it . . .and rescued his team from first round elimination in true MVP fashion.

The Hibbert Factor

It was like a gut punch to the entire team. That’s how several of the players described it privately. When the news came, without any forewarning, that long-time team captain Danny Granger had been traded by Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird, it knocked the wind out of the team that was easily the best in the NBA prior to the move.

During the month of March, a Pacers team that had been burning through the NBA like a hot knife through butter managed just an 8-10 record, after which they managed to play just .500 ball in April. As the playoffs approached they no longer looked like the team most likely to upset Miami, but perhaps the next top seed to lose to an eighth seed. In this case, that eighth seed – the Atlanta Hawks – was also the only sub-.500 team to make the postseason.

In the aftermath of the Granger trade, the Pacers played so poorly that people started questioning everything about the squad. Frank Vogel was immediately put on fans’ chopping block, questions were asked about whether Paul George might have been dubbed a superstar too early, and All-Star center Roy Hibbert was labeled a fluke. It’s funny how the whole world turns on a team when the chips are down. Gradually, however, the rest of the Pacers started to put things back together, with the lone exception of Hibbert. The undersized Hawks actually turned Hibbert into a liability, forcing Vogel to sit him for much of the series, though Hibbert’s true low point wouldn’t come until the second round. When he logged 17 minutes in the series opener against the Washington Wizards without recording a single point or rebound it looked like Hibbert might just be finished.

A tidal wave of criticism resulted from Hibbert’s Game 1 performance, and Pacers fans waited with baited breath to see how Hibbert would respond to that criticism. Fortunately for Indiana, he responded by taking the criticism to heart and turning in one of the best games of his career. He poured in 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds in Game 2, during which the Pacers were +18 during his 33 minutes on the court. Hampered by foul trouble, Hibbert collected just 14 points in Game Three, but his defensive presence sparked a suffocating performance by Indiana, who allowed the Wizards to score just 63 points.

“His contributions during that run and really the whole night were maybe as important as anybody’s on our team,” Vogel said after the game. “Roy’s a terrific two-way player, and that’s what he is. He’s not a 30-point-a-game guy, but he’s a dominant defender, dominant rim protector and he’s a threat on the offensive end and is capable of getting going like he did a little bit tonight and gave us a big lift.”

“Roy knows we’ve got his back,” added Paul George. “He just has to continue to be consistent for us and we know some nights it’s going to be tough. He’s not going to score 28 to 30 points night in and night out, but we’re always going to need him on the defensive end. For the past two games, he’s been great at just defending our basket.”

Slowly but surely the Indiana Pacers are rebuilding the chemistry they had before the trade deadline shake-up. For a while it looked like that process was going to take so long that it would sabotage their postseason and extend into the summer. If, however, the last two games are any indication, it just might be that the return of the real Roy Hibbert can get Indiana back on track and ready for another classic showdown with the Miami HEAT.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

In case you missed my last NBA chat, find it by clicking here! You can also go ahead and submit a question for this week’s chat, which you can find here! I make an effort to answer every non-repeat question, and early questions are virtually guaranteed to be answered, so drop yours in now!

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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