Beginning with the Kansas State game, I noticed Kevin Durant start grabbing his shorts more and more often during the game. Two days later, in College Station, Durant played 39 hard, physical minutes. Since then, he's looked positively gassed.
And the numbers over the last four games support what we're observing with our eyes.
|Game||Total Field Goals||Three Pointers||Free Throws||Total Points||Rebounds|
Of course, when averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds is considered a "downward trend in production," you're a hell of a great player. While it's true that this team is more than just a one-man show, and while it's good and right for us to talk about the rest of this team, there's little point in dodging the fact that this team can and will only go so far as Durant is able to take us. We need DJ, AJ, Damion, Jay, and Connor to do their jobs, but there are going to be points when the team will need Durant to take things to that special level for the team to keep advancing.
So I ask: is Kevin hitting a wall physically?
It certainly looks that way. His numbers over the last four games are down, especially in his shooting percentages. He's now played in 82% of all Texas' minutes this year. He's entering uncharted territory as a true freshman (the high school season ends right now). He's grabbing his shorts. Not as explosive with his moves around the rim. He's just tired.
That's one of the biggest reasons why I was disappointed that Rick didn't take advantage of Tuesday's opportunity to give the superstar some much-needed rest. With Texas destroying the Red Raiders in Austin, Durant still wound up playing 37 minutes on an evening in which he could have played 25 and the Horns still would have easily won by by double-digits.
Now Texas enters the critical three-game stretch to close out the regular season with contests at Oklahoma, versus Texas A&M, and at Kansas - each of whom will be favored against the 'Horns. All three are likely to be tight contests, and all three will require 35-40 minutes of Durant if Texas wants to win. There won't be any rest for the weary after that, either, as Big 12 tournament play will begin for Texas the following Friday; if they play well, that could be more long evenings for Durant on the court.
At this point, we're sort of stuck where we are, left hoping Kevin gets a second wind for the stretch run. It's thrilling to see the team develop around him, and I'm especially excited that we won our last four despite un-Herculean efforts from Durant, but it would be a mistake to think we can accomplish all our goals with merely mortal Kevin Durant performances the rest of the way. It makes you wonder if Texas might benefit most by winning two or three of its final regular season games, then slipping in the first round Big 12 tourney game. I'm by no means advocating a conscious effort to lose. Just wondering whether Texas would be best served if things shook out that way.
Scheduling matters aside, there are two other notes that are worth discussing. First, on Tuesday night we saw Rick go to the "Jumbo" lineup I've been calling for. Texas went with Pittman, Atchley, James, DJ, and Durant, slowed the tempo, and bought some slow-down minutes. This is something Rick ought to consider doing each game for 4-5 minutes, as it's a great way to keep our starters fresh - while leaving our two best scorers on the floor. Further, the up-and-down breakneck tempo we saw against A&M is simply an unsustainable pace for a team with as little depth as Texas has.
Last, it's important that we note that KD's started expending a lot more of his game energy on the defensive end, which has contributed to the teams' wins as much as a 30 point offensive effort does. This is a welcome development on many levels, but doesn't change the underlying premise of this problem: Durant's still expending a ton of energy - it's just now being distributed more evenly across offense and defense.
In any case, this is the stretch run we've been talking about for the last six weeks. OU this Saturday and then two battles with Top 10 teams to close things out. This is that special time of year for the college hoops teams and their fans. Let's enjoy it.
(And get some rest, Kevin.)