MEMPHIS -- It should have been one of the greatest moments in Dirk Nowitzki's life, a crowning achievement of a long journey to master the game and achieve the highest status among his peers.
Instead, the 2007 Most Valuable Player Award ceremony was melancholy, with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban holding back tears as he introduced his franchise player. Nowitzki received the award a few days after his team had been stunned in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, a group of smaller defenders harassing him with a game plan for which he was unprepared. Unable to shake the Warriors, he ended up playing well below his standard during the series.
Nowitzki was so devastated by the loss and the hollowness of that MVP that he immediately fled to Australia for weeks, ignoring the rest of the NBA playoffs, sleeping in hostels in the Outback and growing a long beard as he mourned. If he could have gotten farther away, he probably would have.
Sometime in the next week or so, Kevin Durant is expected to be named Most Valuable Player, dethroning rival LeBron James after a season-long battle for the award. Durant has been building toward it for years as he has grown alongside his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates. It should be a celebratory moment for him and the franchise, a rare honor that will be attached to his name for the rest of his life.
Durant should be receiving his trophy from commissioner Adam Silver in front of the famously raucous Oklahoma City crowd, not calling his travel agent.
But that is what he's on the cusp of as the Memphis Grizzlies go for their latest high-seed knockout Thursday night in Game 6 against the Thunder, who trail 3-2. And just as the Warriors' strategy neutralized Nowitzki, Durant 's team is failing in large part because he can't execute against a fierce game plan.
"I've just got to stay positive," Durant said after a missed free throw in overtime proved to be the difference in the Grizzlies' 100-99 Game 5 win Tuesday. "I'll figure it out."
This series has been so tight -- four consecutive overtime games. There is no black-and-white delineation between who is the hero and who is the goat, as numerous players have taken turns in those roles.
The Thunder as a team have struggled on offense with the Grizzlies effectively making the game a half-court slog, where their size clogs up the middle and their long-armed defenders can challenge everything on the perimeter. Rookie coach Dave Joerger has drawn up a nice blueprint and his team is executing -- it's not simply about Durant's struggles.
If the series ends this way, though, the loss will be attached to Durant. That is how it goes for an NBA superstar, especially when he has a slump when the pressure is on.
Durant is shooting just 40 percent in the five games, and only 33 percent (15-of-45) in the past two. His averages of 28 points and nine rebounds look pretty on the stat sheet, but watching him struggle and disappear in key moments in the face of the tenacious defense being played by Tony Allen and his supporting cast, including Tayshaun Prince, will endure as the lasting memory.