OKLAHOMA CITY— When two teams play over and over, coaches and players love to talk about how adjustments will be the difference.
The San Antonio Spurs ran out to a 2-0 series lead before the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied with a Game 3 victory. Changes were made, alterations accomplished. Up until Saturday, the talk was all about which team would figure it out first and fast.
But when Superman comes out of the phone booth, there’s really no balancing, remodeling or reworking that can be done.
On Saturday in Game 4, Kevin Durant was just too good. He took the Thunder and lifted them to a 2-2 series tie with a performance unlike any he’s had before.
What you saw wasn’t just history, it was what Miami’s LeBron James wants to become and what Michael Jordan once was. A superstar creating and molding his own, personal “One Shining Moment” in front of a sellout of 18,203 fans inside Chesapeake Energy Arena and a national TV audience.
In Oklahoma City, people will remember where they were when they saw Durant put a bow, a ribbon and a stamp on an already deep resume with a 36-point performance, closing out a 109-103 win against the NBA’s best team in his franchise’s most-important game.
“I was there,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I saw it. He was great. His play was better than anything we did defensively.”
See, sometimes it’s not X’s and O’s. It’s just one player asserting himself and one team trying and failing to do anything about it. We saw it, too. And anyone else who did will not forget it anytime soon.
Durant was so good he somehow relegated teammate Serge Ibaka’s 11-for-11 shooting performance to a side plot. Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins combined for 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Any other night, it’s ripe with top-billing potential. Saturday, it was a trailer. Russell Westbrook and James Harden contributing a combined 6-of-23 effort for 18 total points is downright dangerous in a Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Didn’t matter, because Durant showed himself as the brightest of stars on a night when it looked like the story would about role players and home-court advantage. A series tied and future adjustments and changes to be made.
Then Durant took over.
After the Spurs cut the Thunder lead to 86-82 with 7:08 left, Brooks called a timeout. “I didn’t tell myself that I had to score,” Durant said of that moment.
But he did.
From there, Durant went for 16 consecutive points on 7-of-7 shooting. A 16-foot fade-away. An 8-foot fade-away. A turnaround jumper, another fade-away, a layup. A victory, official when Durant didn’t shoot, instead opting to pass to James Harden who made a 3-pointer with 1:04 to play, pushing the lead to nine points.
“He finished it off in fine fashion,” Popovich said.
“I would like that,” Durant said of being known as a closer. “I just want to be calm and composed and make the right play. There’s times where I need to score. I try not to be nervous. Calm down and go with my instincts. I’m not where I want to be, the tough times will help me get better.”
Clutch is making a big free throw with the game on the line or a tough, contested jumper as the clock winds down. Durant was beyond that. Eighteen points of perfection in the last 6:33 of the game as he made the NBA’s best team look like they were scrambling, slow and similar to the team that was bounced out of the playoffs in the first round a season ago.
“When a player that talented gets hot, it’s hard to maintain,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. “We tried different things and they didn’t work. We were on a run we were feeling good. We just couldn’t make a stop. We made a great effort, but we just couldn’t contain him.”
Until Durant arrived, this was a game for stars to be born, not for the established ones to shine. He had just four shots in the first half and an uninspiring eight points. Meanwhile, Ibaka had 14, Perkins had 13 and the Thunder shot 57.5 percent.
“I wasn’t freezing him out,” Brooks said with a smile of Durant’s first half. “Trust me.”
Then the third quarter. Durant had 10 points while playing all 12 minutes, four rebounds and a pair of assists. And feel free to frame the fourth quarter box score which wrapped up a night where he had eight assists, six rebounds and a lone turnover, making 13-of-20 shots.
“It was a great team effort,” said Brooks going to his go-to line before admitting what the rest of us saw.
“And then Kevin took over in the end.”
“I wouldn’t say I carried us,” Durant said. “I was able to make some shots. I was just trying to do my job and finish it.”