OKLAHOMA CITY — No one needed a crystal ball Sunday afternoon when it came to Kevin Durant.
Of course Durant was going to take that shot, you know the one – Thunder down one, clock running down, crowd expecting only the best and then getting it.
Swish. Again. No one plays a hero in knee-length shorts better than Durant, who not only took the 19-foot shot, but made it with such a smooth routine, it was as if he was shooting alone in the gym by himself.
The result was a game-winner, 93-91 over Memphis in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, re-establishing the fact that with or without the injured Russell Westbrook, Durant is good enough to carry, push or pull the Thunder to wherever he feels like taking them.
This Oklahoma City team still runs through and around Durant, but the season, now sans Westbrook, has been saved in a curious case of Lost and Found.
The Thunder won Game 6 in Houston because Kevin Martin re-emerged and Oklahoma City won Game 1 because Martin was even better.
“We’re a really good team with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But what makes us good is our role players. We have stars in that department.”
Generally speaking that “star” is assigned to Serge Ibaka, OKC’s shot-swatting defensive anchor. But it’s Martin who has become the sidekick that Durant desperately needs in the Thunder’s last two games.
After Martin went 11 for 35 in the first three games of the first round, there was no real reason to think he was suddenly going to emerge. It was far more likely to think the pressure of having to replace the injured Westbrook would be too much.
Then in Game 5, Martin went 1 for 10. He couldn’t look his teammates in the eye so he looked at his phone instead. What he saw and read were dozens of text messages, well-wishes and figurative pats on the back. That three-point showing in the home loss to Houston made it look like the Thunder were the big losers on the preseason deal that sent crowd favorite James Harden to the Rockets for Martin.
A 25-point showing in Game 6 made everything better.
Another 25-point performance 36 hours later made everything just right. A combined 15 of 27 from the field and 6-of-10 shooting on 3-pointers the last two games will do that.
“It was a wake-up call,” Martin said of his Game 5 showing. “I felt so bad after that. I just don’t want to go through that again.”
Martin was 8 for 14 Sunday and made 3 of 5 3-pointers, got to the foul line seven times, grabbed seven rebounds and changed the game more than any player on the court not doing Gatorade and deodorant commercials.
The result means the Thunder now have more than one significant offensive weapon. Martin and Durant combined for 60 points Sunday, while the rest of the team had 33. Martin and Durant combined for 40 shots. The rest of the team had 30.
“He’s got confidence,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said of Martin. “He’s always been a good scorer and shooter. We have to be more focused and be able to scheme around what we’re going to do with him.”
If you could predict Durant’s successful winner, congratulations, but you’re not alone. He’s done that before. If you had any sense Martin would be able to pull off the disappearing-to- dominant act, then congratulations on making it through your first year at Hogwarts.
Martin averaged slightly more than 12 points per game in April and shot just 41 percent from the field. The 14 points per game he averaged this season were his lowest since 2006. Part of it is due to coming off the bench for the first time, but a good helping of it is due to the circumstance of fitting in and not being the team’s No. 1 or No. 2 option.
“He had a game where he didn’t make open shots,” Brooks said of the Game 5 disaster. “You have a choice to complain about it or step up and do something.”
This re-emerging act is as surprising as Derek Fisher’s ability to make contested 3-pointers the last two games. An amount of production that was once counted on but then just hoped for.
Martin was perfect in the fourth quarter, 2-of-2 shooting, a 3-pointer, three rebounds and a block. Even won a jump ball.
That’s why Hollins said his team didn’t let one slip away. He said the Thunder earned it, pointing to Durant’s game-winner, but easily it could have been Martin’s play.
“I just tried to stick with the plan and trust in my craft,” Martin said of how he kept his head up. “I had great support, but I knew it was up to me.”