It's February 12th, 2014.
You are Kevin Durant. In the midst of an absolute dream of a season, your team is well on their way to a title. You're dominating the highly competitive Western Conference without your partner in crime, and you've led your team with several extremely impressive performances. People are talking about how you might have already surpassed LeBron for this year's MVP award, and the door is definitely still open for you to establish yourself as an all-time great. Meanwhile, you're one of the league's most marketable stars, making money endorsing everything from phone services to banks. Best of all, you're loved in your hometown, where you do tons to help out the local community and just finished donating $1 million to help out the victims of a horrific national disaster.
Today, you've just arrived in Los Angeles. It's one of your favorite destinations on the NBA calendar. For one, it's the home of one of your good friends, Russell Westbrook. He knows all of the spots in town, and he's gathered quite a bit of popularity of his own. Russ is so popular that he's actually regarded as somewhat of a fashion icon, with his different outfits becoming highly anticipated before most events. It's likely that you and he have some sort of shopping trip planned, along with who knows what else. Hasheem Thabeet, the kilt wearing Tanzanian, is most likely along for the ride as well.
But before you get to any of that, you've probably got some business to take care of. Being an international celebrity is a full-time job, and LA is where all of the advertising agencies are located. There's likely tons of companies that want to get a quick shoot in with you for their new campaign. Celebrities that are in town might want to get into contact with you for one reason or another, whether it be forming connections or asking you to help with an upcoming event.
If all of that wasn't enough, you'll likely have a bunch of job-related duties to take care of the next day. The Thunder will force you to get up early for a morning shootaround in an unfamiliar place, where coaches will give you details on that night's matchup. You'll have a break in the middle of the day, but it won't last long. Soon enough, you've got to get back to the arena to take care of media interviews and other pre-game preparation. During those interviews, you'll be explaining your custom shoe of the night, a highly personal tribute to your Aunt Pearl. You can't just forget the semantics, though. If you don't have all of your ducks in a row and your bags packed before you get to the arena, the team plane will leave without you that night.
Speaking of the team plane leaving that night, you're likely going to be on a four hour red-eye flight to New Orleans in the middle of the night. You'll likely arrive at your hotel in the Crescent City just as the sun rises on Friday, where you have a ton of obligations in the afternoon and evening.
That life is a distant dream for most of us. But, if you can, put yourself in Kevin Durant's shoes for just a second. Given all of the responsibilities that you have over the next few days, how much attention are you going to dedicate to playing the moribund Los Angeles Lakers tonight?
If you said that you're going to be resting in your Hotel room and watching tape of Wesley Johnson's defense, then you're a stronger person than I. It's doubtful that many human beings could resist the temptation to overlook this team.
And thus, the stage is set for last night's game. A somewhat ill-prepared Durant and company take the floor against a Laker team that doesn't stand a chance. The majority of LA's squad is injured, and two of their active players are playing through more minor injuries. This lack of personnel has led the team to give heavy minutes to two mid-season D-League callups and two late second round picks, all of whom are fighting for their NBA lives.
Would this rag-tag Lakers team be able to take down the big bad Thunder?
It's March 6th, 2000.
Shaquille O'Neal finds himself in a very similar situation to Kevin Durant. I'd tell you about it myself, but what better place to get information than the horse's mouth?
At face value, Shaq's story is pretty funny. He doesn't spend any time preparing for the Clippers, yet he ends up having the greatest game of his career and single-handedly leads his team to victory. Afterwards, he still parties.
But there's more to be gleaned from this story, especially if you want to learn a bit about what Kevin Durant was going through last night. Here's three things that you might have missed.
1. Keith Closs is a Boss
When Shaq uttered the name "Keith Closs", the room immediately erupted in enormous laughter. Now, when the mere mention of a name elicits that much of a reaction from so many different people, you know that the person in question is one crazy guy. After the video, I decided to do a quick YouTube search for Mr. Closs, and this is what I found:
Yes, that's Keith Closs. I don't know if there's much I can say about this video to explain the guy any better. 12 years after the fact, he desperately holds onto his grudge against Shaq. And it's not something that the reporter really instigated, either. It was really just Closs using a softball question to insult Shaq and pump up his own ego....by naming himself one of the five greatest centers of all time. Twice.
Of course, Closs is completely delusional. Shaq creamed Closs in every single encounter that they had, consistently posting well above his averages.
Unfortunately for Shaq, the story doesn't end there....
2. Shaq is a Liar
That's right. Shaq never played Keith Closs on March 6th, 2000. Closs was on the roster, but was either unable to play or simply not called upon. At the time, he was in the throes of alcohol addiction and mere months away from his inevitable release from the Clippers. But he was placed on the injured reserve with back spasms the next day, so it's entirely possible that he was simply hurt.
So, what were Shaq's true circumstances on that night? Well....
3. Video Evidence Trumps All
I'm so glad we live in the modern age. Above you'll find highlights of Shaq's 61 point performance. But this reel isn't remarkable because of how utterly dominant Shaq looks. Rather, the reel is remarkable because of the circumstances surrounding Shaq's big game. Here's what to look for:
0:00-0:40: The Clippers start off the game with Michael Olowakandi on Shaq in a relatively traditional lineup. Olowakandi, a historic NBA bust, was pretty much a inefficient double-double machine with above-average defense. As a 7'1 center, he had seen some level of success against Shaq at times, but generally got creamed like the rest of the league. Luckily for the Kandi man, on this night, Shaq was underprepared, and he didn't get many baskets early on.
0:41-5:40: The Clippers go small. With Closs unavailable, they didn't have a true center to play opposite Shaq when Olowakandi was off the floor. The Clips could have looked to Lamar Odom, but Odom was a focal point of their offense, and they didn't necessarily want to tire him out by forcing him to bang with Shaq in the post. So, enjoying a small lead, the Clippers make the ultimate gamble: Playing Pete Chilcutt and Anthony Avent opposite Shaq.
If you recognized both of those names, you deserve a medal. Regardless, all you need to know about Chilcutt and Avent is that they were ridiculously outmatched. Both gave up three inches and 90-95 pounds to the Big Aristotle, and neither stood a chance in single coverage. Needless to say, they were steamrolled, and Shaq's point total climbed. The Clippers continually dared him to score, challenging him to carry his team. By halftime, the Lakers had earned a 1 point lead.
5:40-9:02: Seeing their chance to win slipping, the Clippers make a halftime change of strategy, putting Olowakandi back in the game. I can't be entirely sure, but this is probably the Abdul-Jabbar moment Shaq talks about in the Open Court video. Abdul-Jabbar, unlike Closs, actually played a role in the outcome of the game. As a Clippers assistant coach and former Laker great, Abdul-Jabbar was heavily featured on the KCAL broadcast. Furthermore, it's likely that he dished out advice to Olowakandi at some point.
I don't know whether that advice came right before the half, but it's clear that Shaq is pretty frustrated at this point. He has almost half of his team's points at halftime, he's in danger of losing a trap game, and the Clippers are trying to make life absolutely miserable for him. He's not going to be denied on his birthday, so....
Shaq runs the break. Yes. In response to the pressure, Shaq literally just starts outrunning his opponents. Fast break dunks, backdoor cuts, you name it, Shaq was doing it. The plays Shaq carries out are extremely demoralizing, so the Clippers start to quickly fall behind. The atmosphere was definitely brutish and nasty, as evidenced by the audio cutting out at 8:08 and 8:21.
9:02-13:14: At this point, the Clippers have basically thrown in the towel and Shaq is just cruisin'. They re-insert Pete Chilcutt as Shaq's defender, and things get pretty heated between the two. Chilcutt is pretty noticably angry when he enters the game, the audio cuts at at certain points, and their body language pretty much says it all. By the end of the game, Shaq is basically putting up exhibition baskets against the Washington Generals.
It's February 13th, 2014.
Just under 14 years after Shaq's historic night against the Clippers, Kevin Durant finds himself facing a very similar situation. His opponent is terrible, he's likely a lot more interested in what's going on at All-Star Weekend, and the Lakers don't have anyone on their roster than can stop him. Was KD destined to repeat Shaq's greatness?
In a lot of ways, yes. Before 0:44 in the video, you'll see the typical Durant highlights that we're all used to. Simple pick and rolls, jumpshots, and transition plays. He had little trouble getting the shots he wanted, but he generally took a back seat to the rest of the team. He wasn't playing his usual distribution role, either.
But about mid-way through the third quarter of this game, things were getting dire. The Thunder's offense was stalling out, and Chris Kaman and Wesley Johnson were playing the game of their lives. The Lakers were constantly threatening to push their lead into the mid-teens, and the slower Thunder just couldn't keep up with their fast-passing attack.
That's when Kevin Durant replicated Shaq's third quarter against Michael Olowakandi. Something clicked, and he just started tearing through the Laker D. Wesley Johnson was at Durant's absolute mercy, doing his best to simply stay in front of his man. Meanwhile, Durant could get whatever he wanted. He slyly lost Johnson off the ball, while doing his best to embarrass Johnson by hitting tough shot after tough shot with the ball in his hands.
Around 1:36 is where the highlight reels start to differ. At that point in Shaq's fourth, the dreadful Clippers had given up on ever beating the Lakers. Shaq was in his own playground, and proceeded to light up the highlights. The same didn't hold true for Durant, who was forced to scrap and claw his team back into the game. Eventually, he'd help seal the game with some extremely clutch baskets.
Drawing a comparison between 2000 Shaq and 2014 Kevin Durant is easy, if you look in the right places. Both are stars in the midst of their careers, both are on very promising contending teams, and both still haven't won a title. But those aren't the measures by which we judge our men.
Shaq's night against the Clippers and KD's night against the Lakers could have very easily been throw-away losses. Had both of them posted mediocre numbers on the nights in question, it would likely do little to deter their overall legacy. No one would remember, no one would care.
But that's not how it works in real life. In real life, everyone has bad days. And it's how you deal with those bad days that defines you. If you're easily angered or stressed out when things go sour, you're likely to be seen as a miserable or unreliable person, regardless of how you act on sunny days.
Similarly, nights like these are exactly where a player's legacy is defined. We all know that the vast majority of these guys are dedicated to their craft, and that all of them dream at a shot of winning the NBA Finals. It's easy to prepare and give your all in those games, because they can mean the difference between success and failure. But a mid-season game against a mediocre team isn't anybody's idea of glory, and it's understandable that anyone's level of intensity would fall in such a situation.
So while a single bad performance on a night like this might not do much to hurt the overall legacy of KD or Shaq, several of them might start to add up. That's why games like these are so important to see if you are to understand either of them as a person or as a player. It's the nights like these that define their greatness, both in terms of overcoming adversity and playing on an extremely high level.
We likely won't ever know for certain whether KD was ill-prepared heading into tonight's game against the Lakers. KD's 43 point line was downright pedestrian by his standards, and I doubt that he'll ever be given a reason to describe this particular night again. But we're always free to wonder, and it's all a fascinating part of Kevin Durant's legend.
On some levels, I'm okay with that. After all, you can't lie about what happened in the NBA Finals.
Disclaimer: I don't claim to know anything about what Durant was doing off the court on February 12th and 13th. Nor do I accuse him of any wrongdoing. A ton of this article is based on shaky facts and conjecture, and should be treated as such.