Kevin Durant’s start to last night’s game was pretty ominous. The feeling coming into game four was that – after an emotional game three win for the Thunder – the veteran Spurs would strike back and take complete control of the series. That’s the way things seemed to be going at first. Similar to the opening sequences in game one, Durant was being bullied off the ball and was unable to get any separation from either Kawhi Leonard or Stephen Jackson, leading to a invisible beginning for the three-time scoring champ.
The result was a stuttering Thunder offense that took a lot of time to get where it needed to go – something that played into San Antonio’s hand. At one point in the first quarter, TNT got a great shot of Jackson draped all over Durant on the right wing while a visibly frustrated Durant pushed him off. That scene was an accurate representation of what has become the status quo for defending Durant. Get up into his body, push him off his spots and keep him from getting easy shots on the break. Though the scored was tied at the end of the first period, it seemed like the opportunity was there for the Spurs to step on the Thunder’s throat.
And then something unexpected happened. When a scorer as good as Durant has as quiet a quarter as he did in the first (he only took two shots), they tend to try to force themselves into a rhythm by getting off a few shots in a row, even if they aren’t exactly great looks. It’s not an ideal practice but the best often make it work, and Durant has fallen into this routine before. But last night, instead of trying desperately to get himself going with some tough 20-footers, Durant responded to San Antonio’s successful defensive scheme in the first quarter by making everyone around him better.
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Durant was still drawing a ton of attention from the Spurs defense, but he was able to get some space in the second quarter thanks to some more acute screening from OKC’s big men. But instead of shooting the ball on the catch, Durant waited out the defense and forced them to react to him as a playmaker. San Antonio couldn’t do it. The Thunder’s offense looked better than it has all post-season long in that quarter. They may have scored more points previously but the ball movement was, frankly, Spurseque. Ball movement became contagious and Oklahoma City manufactured good look after good look because the ball was moving through the air instead of via the dribble. Suddenly the team that ranked dead last in assists this season was getting three to four good looks per possession and the team praised for their precise execution all season long was reduced to one-on-one matchups.
Oklahoma City took control of the game, and perhaps the series, in that quarter. They outscored the Spurs 29-17 and sent a clear message with a 12-point halftime lead. Durant’s willingness as well as his ability to go from pure scorer to playmaker swung the game for the Thunder. Their stagnant, pull-up jumper laden offense turned into a juggernaut with a swing pass to the corner from Durant. Durant was as elated as he’s ever been on the floor when he found Kendrick Perkins for a dunk in the final minute of the second quarter to push the Thunder’s lead to 10, which was a glimpse at his infallible team-first attitude. And then with six seconds left in the half, Durant hit a jumper from 16-feet, properly illustrating just how dangerous of a player he can be.
San Antonio would push back, of course, getting Oklahoma City’s lead all the way down to four with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. But just when you thought all of Durant’s work early in the game would be wasted, the second stage of his evolutionary night kicked in. His finale for last night’s performance was masterful and it left everyone in the basketball universe begging for more. Durant’s stunning efficiency in the fourth quarter solidified what was previously a prowling narrative: The Thunder superstar is the best closer in basketball.
Durant spent the first two rounds of the playoffs winning individual late game battles with Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, two of the sport’s most storied and respected clutch performers. He hit the game-winner in game one of the Dallas series and he had a pair of clinchers in closing seconds against the Lakers, too. After successfully eliminating Nowitzki and Bryant, Durant was pitted against a team full of crunchtime options. Durant’s post-season journey has unfolded just like a video game with each boss getting progressively harder. From the seven minute mark to the one minute mark, the Spurs scored on eight of their 11 possessions as their surgical offense picked apart the Thunder defense and their role players made some tough shots. And it didn’t matter one bit.
That’s how good Durant was. He completely took over the game once the Spurs came within four. He seemed to sense the moment and realized the game was hanging in the balance; either he took over, or the Spurs took the series. Durant made his choice and the Thunder responded by going to their best crunchtime play nearly every time down the floor in the fourth. The play started with James Harden coming off of a downscreen and receiving the ball from Russell Westbrook on the left wing. Westbrook then went down to the right block and set a brush screen for Durant, who used the screen to get to the free throw line or the right elbow in a post-up situation.
No matter what San Antonio did to defend it, Durant scored. He hit the 17-foot jumper, he hit one-handed push shots from nine feet out, he hit an incredibly tough fadeaway with contact and, inexplicably, he got free for a lob (with a foul) as the Spurs cheated on the Westbrook brush screen. San Antonio fought through the screen to get into Durant, they switched Parker onto to Durant (not unlike what they did against Dirk in the 2006 Western Conference Finals) and, after six scores, sent a double at him. None of it made a difference on this night. The Thunder only had to go to their secondary action for Durant on that play (a screen on the left side from Perkins) once in the fourth. That’s how well Durant was playing.
Durant scored 16 consecutive points during one stretch (he was 7-of-8 from the field in the final seven minutes of the game) and it could have been more if San Antonio hadn’t started sending doubles his way. When the Spurs did send someone at Durant, he dribbled away from his launching point (or where he had doing most of his scoring during his crunchtime binge) and hit a wide open Harden on the left wing for a three that iced the game.
Durant delivered the total package for the Thunder last night. Not only did his typically unbelievable and absurd scoring ability shine through, but it appeared as if Durant’s pulse and the beat of the Thunder were indistinguishable after the first quarter. Durant made his teammates better last night, invigorating them on both ends of the floor by getting them in the right spots and firing them up with constant scoring. The Thunder’s defense was inspired by their offense last night, and their offense was a creation of Durant’s.
Durant’s evolution into something even more than a deadly scoring threat took his team to an entirely different level. Oklahoma City isn’t supposed to win when Westbrook and Harden score 18 points on 23 shots, but because Durant got everyone’s juices flowing with his pass happy second quarter, everyone was involved and a flawless Serge Ibaka (he had 26 points on 11-of-11 shooting and all of his looks were wide open dunks or wide open 18-footers) and an inspired Kendrick Perkins (15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with only one basket outside the paint) provided the supplemental production.
With the offense flowing, all the Thunder needed to do to even this series up was defend. Oklahoma City took what was one of the most productive offenses in recent NBA history and forced them to play one-on-one basketball. Thabo Sefolosha has done a great job containing Tony Parker on the pick-and-rolls which has made the Spurs rely on either Parker and Manu Ginobili scoring on their own, something they aren’t great at. If that fails, San Antonio has had to fallback on posting Tim Duncan, something that ruins their tempo and presents few efficient scoring chances. Duncan shot 39% on post-ups this season and he is now shooting 38% overall in this series. Because San Antonio’s defense is so suspect, if you’re able to take them out of their offensive flow for even 25% of a game, you’ve got a chance to beat them, and the Thunder did just that in games three and four.
After evening up the series, the young Thunder know they have what it takes to win and, more importantly, they know what they have to do to win. Durant has taken his game to another level, Oklahoma City’s role players are contributing when they need to and the Thunder have all of the momentum headed into game five.
The Thunder grew up last night.
Now it’s time to see if the resilient Spurs have any growing left to do.