There's a commercial currently in full TV rotation that tells plenty about Kevin Durant and the situation he finds himself in right now. You've seen it. You see Durant dribbling and going one-on-one against Dwyane Wade, rising to the rim, aiming for the slam, getting it blocked, and then all of a sudden he's sitting up in bed, soaked, waking up in a cold sweat.
It was only a bad dream.
Well, there's an updated version being played out now in the NBA playoffs, and although it might only feel like a potential nightmare, it's 100 percent real life.
It has Durant dribbling, trying to do it all, looking for help, hoping to carry Oklahoma City through the dangerous post-season minefield known as the Western Conference. And there's no Russell Westbrook in sight. This reality is a lot more humbling and troubling than getting your lunch served by Wade.
And so, in less than a year, here in the first round pitting the Thunder against the stubborn Rockets, we find Durant without the two trusted sidekicks who helped OKC reach the NBA Finals last summer. Westbrook is done with a repaired knee, while James Harden is across the floor, playing for the other side. This leaves Durant in a dilemma. What's a superstar to do when he's jumping out of bed, soaked and waking up in a cold sweat and realizing he wasn't dreaming it all?
Lucky for him, the Thunder are up 3-1 on Houston. Even in their fractured state, the Thunder are too deep and loaded for the Rockets, the youngest team in the playoffs, who have their own issues (namely a gimpy Jeremy Lin). This series could and should end Wednesday night in OKC. And then what? How can anyone reasonably expect Durant to pull OKC past Round 2 and beyond? Is that simply too much to ask of a player not named LeBron James?
This is where we find out plenty about Durant, who whined to Sports Illustrated recently about the horrors of being No. 2. As in: second player taken in the draft, second in last year's MVP voting, a runner-up finish to LeBron last June, etc. We'll see if he can make the necessary changes in his game to carry OKC and finally come in first. We'll see if a guy who has already accomplished plenty in his NBA career at age 24 can show more growth, and in a hurry.
Or maybe this is nothing more than a dreamy fantasy.
Durant doesn't need more help to get beyond the Rockets. But he'll need more than what he's getting to get past the Clippers-Grizzlies winner. Strangely enough, weren't we all talking glowingly about the Thunder and their youth and depth and staying power -- they'll contend for a title the next 10 years! -- just 10 months ago? It was all true. But now, there's a significant talent gap between Durant and his next-best teammate, whether it's Serge Ibaka, who missed a point-blank layup at the buzzer in Game 4 , or Kevin Martin, a nice enough player who can't take over a game.
Suddenly, Durant and OKC look like LeBron and the Cavaliers a few years ago, and it'll require Durant to play like LeBron to get OKC within smelling distance of the Finals this time.
"It's a matter of everyone doing their fair share," he said, "and obviously, that includes me. I realize what's at stake and what needs to be done."
He's a scorer who needs to be a lot more. And that's tricky. Without Westbrook, his trusty shotgun rider, Durant must find a way to score and also involve his teammates. Make them better. Build their confidence. And also bail them out in tight games, which Durant was unable to do Monday in Houston when the defense forced him to pass the ball.
As great a player as he is, can Durant evolve so quickly and suddenly? He's not a natural facilitator. He's more of a finisher, one of the best in the game. If OKC is asking Durant to turn into a point guard, shooting guard and small forward all at once, that might be asking too much, especially at this stage.
"Without Russell, you're missing that point guard who can control the game, the take-charge guy," said Martin.
That's the difference between Durant and LeBron -- even Durant and Kobe Bryant. Those other two stars can comfortably adjust their roles and games in emergency situations. Kobe has a solid view of the floor and his teammates (he just doesn't pass the ball much). LeBron, though, is an excellent passer and unselfish player. He can beat you without scoring more than 20 points. Durant needs to score in bunches to beat you, which he often does.
A one-man scoring show is unlikely to chop down a smart, veteran and deep team like, for example, the Spurs if OKC sees them this spring. Durant would need to change his game and find shots for players who can't create their own, like Ibaka and Martin and Thabo Sefolosha. Sort of like the way LeBron gave a helping hand to Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams and others on those Cleveland teams.
His Oklahoma City teammates shot only 41 percent in the Game 4 loss to Houston. Nobody's saying Durant can't turn into a Swiss Army knife and become a do-it-all who raises the ability of those around him. He just never had to, until now. And until he does, his ability to adapt will be in question.
You've got to feel for Durant a little. After losing to LeBron and Miami last summer, he cried on his mother's shoulder as he walked off the floor. He devoted his summer to improving his game, first through the Olympic experience, then through his annual sessions with LeBron, and it showed this season. He was brilliant, averaging 28 points, shooting 51 percent, 41 from deep, and eight rebounds, dominating most nights and helping OKC win 60 games to claim the best record in the rugged West -- no easy task there.
Back to that commercial, though. Do you suspect life imitated fiction the last few nights with Durant actually waking up in a cold sweat?
Maybe he did. Maybe he dreamed of having a deep and talented team with Russell Westbrook to his left and James Harden to his right and a whole lot of swagger in his head. And then, chop-chop, cruel things happened. Rather than wait and deal with his contract this summer, OKC panicked and traded Harden last fall. Westbrook grabbed his knee on a fluke play just a couple of games into the post-season. And suddenly, Durant is all alone to fend for himself.
Quick, give the startled man a towel for that cold sweat. And throw him another, in case tears are next.