Is Kevin Durant Destined to Fail At a Young Age Like Wilt, Oscar and MJ?

by June 04, 2012

As far as individual stats go, Kevin Durant doesn’t worry much about precedent. The 23-year-old is far too busy setting his own: youngest player to win an NBA scoring title (and likely only one of any age to wear pink and blue argyle socks), youngest to win three straight scoring titles, youngest to score 10,971 points—the last 16 of which still smolder in the collective imagination of basketball fans everywhere. “That was great, just to see that and be a witness,” Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha said of his teammate’s torrid fourth quarter.

As Durant’s name gains traction in the League’s record book, so does the nationwide appeal of the surging team he leads. No team with a core of players so young—Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are 23 years old or younger—has ever played this well at this level. In the last two seasons, these Thunder have reached the Conference Finals twice. They have won 121 of 178 games, the last of which has many believing the team of the future’s time is now.

Not so fast.

Yes, the Thunder’s 109-103 win over San Antonio on Saturday night was impressive. Yes, the Spurs, once so hot, have now lost two in a row for the first time since Newt Gingrich was relevant.

But the Spurs are still at the front of the bus, with the game’s best coach at the wheel. Moreover, that bus has returned to San Antonio for Monday night’s Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. There, the young Thunder cannot feed off the emotions that fueled it to consecutive wins in the cozy confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena. To win, they will have to fortify their focus, block out distraction and get similarly unexpected X-factor contributions like the combined 18-for-20 shooting performance received from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins on Saturday night.

On top of all this, Durant must again pump in a maestro performance. Even if Westbrook and Harden elevate their game, the bulk of praise or blame ultimately falls on Durant’s shoulders. And chances are, despite the Thunder’s recent success, Durant and his team will fail. History typically doesn’t smile kindly on whippersnapper teams trying to topple the title-winning old guard this deep in the Playoffs, even when the up-and-comers are led by a transcendent talent equal or greater to Durant.

In the following series, a relatively unproven challenger (the lower seed) tried to knock out more experienced teams that had recently won titles in what’s now known as the Conference Finals. Game 5’s are italicized when the series lead was at stake.

(1) Boston Celtics [Bob Cousy, Bill Russell] vs. (3) Cincinnati Royals [Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer]: Celtics win series 4-3
Game 1 @ Boston: Cincinnati 135, Boston 132
Game 2 @ Cincinnati: Boston 125, Cincinnati 102
Game 3 @ Boston: Cincinnati 121, Boston 116
Game 4 @ Cincinnati: Boston 128, Cincinnati 110
Game 5 @ Boston: Boston 125, Cincinnati 120

Game 6 @ Cincinnati: Cincinnati 109, Boston 99
Game 7 @ Boston: Boston 142, Cincinnati 131

(1) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Philadelphia 76ers: [Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker] Celtics win series 4-3
Game 1 @ Boston: Boston 108, Philadelphia 98
Game 2 @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 109, Boston 103
Game 3 @ Boston: Boston 112, Philadelphia 94
Game 4 @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 134, Boston 131 (OT)
Game 5 @ Boston: Boston 114, Philadelphia 108

Game 6 @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 112, Boston 106
Game 7 @ Boston: Boston 110, Philadelphia 109 (John Havlicek steals the inbounds pass by Hal Greer)

(1) Los Angeles Lakers [Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] vs. (2) Houston Rockets [Akeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson]: Rockets win series 4–1
Game 1 @ The Forum, Los Angeles (May 10): Los Angeles 119, Houston 107
Game 2 @ The Forum, Los Angeles (May 13): Houston 112, Los Angeles 102
Game 3 @ The Summit, Houston (May 16): Houston 117, Los Angeles 109
Game 4 @ The Summit, Houston (May 18): Houston 105, Los Angeles 95
Game 5 @ The Forum, Los Angeles (May 21): Houston 114, Los Angeles 112 (Ralph Sampson hits the famous off-balanced series winner at the buzzer; Hakeem Olajuwon was ejected in the third quarter for fighting Lakers forward Mitch Kupchak)

(1) Boston Celtics [Larry Bird, Kevin McHale] vs. (3) Detroit Pistons [Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars]: Celtics win series 4-3
Game 1 @ Boston Garden, Boston (May 19): Boston 104, Detroit 91
Game 2 @ Boston Garden, Boston (May 21): Boston 110, Detroit 101
Game 3 @ Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac (May 23): Detroit 122, Boston 104
Game 4 @ Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac (May 24): Detroit 145, Boston 119
Game 5 @ Boston Garden, Boston (May 26): Boston 108, Detroit 107 (Larry Bird steals Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass and gives the ball to Dennis Johnson, who hits the game-winning lay-up with 1 second left)
Game 6 @ Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac (May 28): Detroit 113, Boston 105
Game 7 @ Boston Garden, Boston (May 30): Boston 117, Detroit 114

(1) Detroit Pistons vs. (6) Chicago Bulls [Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen]: Pistons win series 4-2
Game 1 @ The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills (May 21): Chicago 94, Detroit 88
Game 2 @ The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills (May 23): Detroit 100, Chicago 91
Game 3 @ Chicago Stadium, Chicago (May 27): Chicago 99, Detroit 97 (Michael Jordan hits the game-winner with 3 seconds left)
Game 4 @ Chicago Stadium, Chicago (May 29): Detroit 86, Chicago 80
Game 5 @ The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills (May 31): Detroit 94, Chicago 85

Game 6 @ Chicago Stadium, Chicago (June 2): Detroit 103, Chicago 94

(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (3) Indiana Pacers [Jalen Rose, Reggie Miller] Bulls win series 4-3
Game 1 @ Chicago Chicago 85, Indiana 79
Game 2 @ Chicago Chicago 104, Indiana 98
Game 3 @ Indiana Indiana 107, Chicago 105
Game 4 @ Indiana Indiana 96, Chicago 94
Game 5 @ Chicago Chicago 106, Indiana 87

Game 6 @ Indiana Indiana 92, Chicago 89
Game 7 @ Chicago Chicago 88, Indiana 83

(1) San Antonio Spurs [Tim Duncan, David Robinson] vs. (3) Dallas Mavericks [Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki]: Spurs win series 4-2
Game 1 @ San Antonio Dallas 113, San Antonio 110
Game 2 @San Antonio Dallas 106, San Antonio 119
Game 3 @Dallas, San Antonio 96 Dallas 83
Game 4 @Dallas, San Antonio 102, Dallas 95
Game 5 @San Antonio Dallas 103, San Antonio

Game 6 @Dallas San Antonio 90, Dallas78

(1) Detroit Pistons [Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton] vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers [LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas] Cleveland wins series 4-2
Game 1 @ Detroit Detroit 79, Cleveland 76
Game 2 @ Detroit Detroit 79, Cleveland 76
Game 3 @ Cleveland Cleveland 88, Detroit 82
Game 4 @ Cleveland Cleveland 91, Detroit 87
Game 5 @ Detroit Cleveland 109, Detroit 107 (2OT)

Game 6 @ Cleveland 98, Detroit 82

In all of the above situations that closely resemble today’s OKC-San Antonio Game 5, only once—in 2007—did the less experienced team topple the older team on the road. And that win doesn’t happen without a superhuman effort from LeBron James, who scored the Cavaliers’ final 25 points. That Cleveland team, of course, would get swept by a vastly more experienced San Antonio team—featuring the same core players who will play better at home tonight.

After Saturday night’s loss, Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson discussed how homecourt advantage helped the Thunder rediscover their mojo: “They want it. They want to be here, they wanna win. I love the passion of those young guys over there in that locker room. I love the passion, how much they want it, and I just want us to be the same way.”

“We got to have that fire and that energy from the beginning of the game like they are. They’re ready to play. It takes us a quarter, or the second quarter or even the third quarter for us to get going and playing physical. We got to be that team from the beginning of the game.”

Years from now it will be some grey-bearded Thunder player representing a top-seeded Oklahoma City squad talking the same way, trying to fire up his teammates for one more Championship.

The first of those titles will arrive soon enough. Just not this year.

Expect Durant, like Robertson, Chamberlain, Thomas, Jordan and Nowitzki before him, to succumb to his elders first.

Arkansas-based journalist Evin Demirel has written for, Slate and SLAM magazine. Follow him on Twitter @evindemirel.