OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant came out of a fourth-quarter timeout and stood underneath the basket, his hands extended, pulling down on the net.
No one was near him. No teammate talked to him and Durant didn’t seem interested in talking with anyone else.
He didn’t look lost. He looked alone. Because he was.
Later in the quarter, with the Thunder flailing, Durant once again went solo – a mission into the lane. A one-on-three crusade where he crashed into a wall of red and yellow, missed the shot wildly and then threw his hands to the ceiling again.
This time, palms up.
Maybe he was looking for some refuge from the referees, but what he really needed was something, anything from his teammates.
Durant went scoreless in the fourth quarter and with superstar Russell Westbrook watching the game from a Chesapeake Arena suite, hobbled with a bum knee, the Thunder unraveled in a Game 5 home loss to Houston, 107-100.
While the Thunder are still ahead, needing just one win in the next two games, they were exposed Wednesday night. A No. 1 seed without a direction now that Westbrook gets cheers only when shown on the Jumbotron, wearing a freebie t-shirt, handed out to get the crowd in unison for a team that certainly isn’t.
It’s Durant and then it’s “Not Exactly,” in Oklahoma City. Yes, Durant scored 36 points, but no, he couldn’t get loose in the fourth quarter, getting shut out. The loss of Westbrook has certainly crippled the Thunder offense and affected Oklahoma City’s defense, but what it really seems to have done is crush the team’s flow, attitude and psyche. No one came to Durant’s aid Wednesday night and that will have to change if the Thunder have any hope of avoiding a total collapse.
“We have a day to think about it,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have to figure it out.”
That’s because Oklahoma City has slowly degenerated into a combination of Reggie Jackson, DeAndre Liggins and Derek Fisher spinning out of control into the lane. On defense, the Thunder basically conceded, choosing a gimmicky strategy of fouling Houston forward Omer Asik away from the ball. It’s a style un-becoming of a team that won 60 games and earned the top spot in the Western Conference, suggesting this team isn’t good enough to win games the old-fashioned way – by rebounding and getting stops.
The result was a strange confluence of events that led to James Harden embarrassing the Thunder with a 31-point performance and Asik making 13 of 18 free throws, 11 of 16 in the fourth quarter, despite being just a 56-percent shooter this season. It was the Rockets making 14 3-pointers and the Thunder inexplicably not making any adjustments defensively like getting seasoned defender Nick Collison in the game in the second half and Ronnie Brewer getting on the floor at all.
“They played well,” Durant said. “We have to forget about this one. We have to do a better job of bringing more energy on the defensive end. I have to be better as a leader to play harder every minute.”
Durant finished 11 of 23 for 36 points, but was 0 for 5 in the fourth quarter. Game 6 is Friday night in Houston and by then everyone will be talking about how Durant may be one of the best players on the planet, but even Superman’s shoulders get tired sometimes.
He can carry this team, but maybe not forever. Kevin Martin has disappeared from the conversation of reliable Thunder scorers. He went 1 for 10 for three points. Jackson was admirable in his 20-point effort, but his playoff pedigree goes as far back as April 29 of this season when he played his first postseason game. Serge Ibaka had 14 and Thabo Sefolosha had nine. Fisher played 29 minutes and scored eight points. The whole thing together is a mixed bag of, “Look out, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Let’s face it, K-Mart did not have a good game,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to go 1 for 10 many times. He had an off night. Hopefully he will come back better.”
Yeah, hopefully, because the Thunder are halfway to becoming a story of an epic melt. Despite winning the past two games, no one is saying Houston is expected to win the next two, which would include a Game 7 in Oklahoma City on Sunday, but the series has turned.
“We’re an 8-seed,” Harden said. “No one is expecting us to win.”
More like, no one is expecting the Thunder to win, either, now that Westbrook is cheering from the suites and Martin has lost touch with offensive production.
Oklahoma City shot 41.9 percent and threw up 33 3-pointers, making only eight, yet the lasting image of this game is Durant crashing into the lane and flinging the ball up and missing, turning to the refs and looking for help.
Maybe Friday he’ll look to his teammates for the same.
“Of course it’s tough not having our starting point guard but we can’t make an excuse,” Durant said. “I have to be better as a leader and lead my guys and get us to play harder every minute.”