Fear, Not Love
Is this the beginning of a cold-blooded Kevin Durant?
by Ryan ZumMallen / @ryanzummallen
“It is safer to be feared than to be loved,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli sometime around 1513, in anticipation of the 2012 NBA Finals.
With my Clippers out of contention, I had no rooting interest in this series (OK, I never do). But soon I began actively rooting for the Heat. Not because I wanted the series to end, or because I think the Big Three deserved a title, but because the thought of a scorned Thunder team out for blood sounds like the best thing to ever happen to the NBA.
The Thunder ran through the ’11-12 season like an AAU team running their tired dads off the court, and it caught up to them when they ran into a hungrier version of themselves. Think of how great Durant and the Thunder can be if they thirst for a Championship like it’s the only thing keeping them alive. That’s the way James played over the last three weeks.
That’s why I believe the Thunder will never reach their full Championship potential without a Kevin Durant who is hellbent on absolute destruction. One who will bite Derek Fisher’s head off for making silly ass plays. One who refuses to hug the opposing MVP as the final buzzer sounds. One who will not only ignore his mother but pretend he doesn’t recognize her until he’s holding that trophy. Kevin Durant can lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a Championship, but only when he stops being so… Kevin Durant.
Think about it. People may like Drake, but nobody is stepping to Pusha T. Pierce Brosnan was smooth, but I’d throw down on his James Bond over Daniel Craig’s in a heartbeat. Would you rather negotiate against Billy Hunter or David Stern?
OK, nobody likes Billy Hunter. But you get the point.
Because what this swift series boiled down to was the pure brilliance of Kevin Durant and the cold brutality of LeBron James. Durant, three-time scoring champ and perpetual nice guy who hugs his courtside mom and says “Doodle Jump” in commercials, is a national darling. James, a two-time Finals loser and a villain if ever there was one, just endured two years of the most scathing criticism in sports history and looks like he was built from molten lava.
Now, I don’t blame Durant for the Thunder’s loss. On the contrary, with 30.6 ppg on 54.8 percent shooting in the Finals, he handled the big stage well and was basically the only player on his team not to lose a game with a bone-headed play.
But he certainly had his struggles, whether it was a stinker fourth quarter in Game 3 or an almost complete inability to get open whenever James guarded him. Personally, I blame Scott Brooks who, for some reason, doesn’t design plays for the best scorer in the League to catch the ball in scoring position, but great players have been overcoming bad coaches since the day after Dr. Naismith first hung a peach basket. Durant’s struggles were the result of lax coaching and no mean streak. For chrissakes, a decrepit Shane Battier took him to the hole in Game 4. Hard.
In fact it’s Russell Westbrook, and not Durant, who really left his mark on the 2012 Finals. We’ll talk about that 43-point Game 4 for ages. For Durant, there were moments, but what did he do that will live on in infamy? At what point did the Oklahoma City Thunder look like Kevin Durant’s team? He’s the undisputed next great NBA star, and yet it’s Westbrook who seems to be growing in the James mold—attacking the basket, beating his chest and screaming at the crowd. No one kept Westbrook away from the basket and it kept the Thunder in the series. Durant asked for permission; Westbrook stepped up and took it. What.
That attitude goes beyond individual performance, too. It has a direct effect on your team. For all the recent talk about Mario Chalmers being the little brother on the Heat, we forget that LeBron James is barely a year older than him. Bossing around a teammate has less to do with age, and more to do with asserting your authority. Establishing your dominance. Putting the Fear Of God into someone. It paid off for the Heat.
Meanwhile, James Harden throws away a costly turnover late in Game 3 and Durant can’t even look him in the eye.
Durant has the ability to demand more from his teammates, to make them live up to his standards and match his excellence. If the Thunder want to win a Championship, he’ll have to be more trash-talking hellfire missile and less guy who randomly shows up for flag football games. Durant had a hell of a lot of fun during the lockout and it carried over into a wildly successful season. But future seasons need to be approached not with excitement, but vengeance.
And I’m sorry to say that, because it’s Durant’s pure love of the game that makes him drop 66 at the Rucker for fun. It’s why we love him. There’s innocence in that smile. Humility. Perspective. Durant is basketball’s most humanized superstar, and it’s sad to think that the next natural step in his progression is to grow cold, but it’s the truth. The exuberance of youth is what makes Kevin Durant the most likable star in America, and it must be stripped from him—torn away if necessary—if he wants to one day hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Because that’s what it takes to be a Champion in the era of King James.
Fear. Not love.