Let’s call it an “edge” Kevin Durant had in the Houston series. It’s not that Durant has ever been soft, but since he entered the NBA, he has been one of the most likable stars in American sports. Something changed, though, in this first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
In the series-clinching, 103-94 win Friday in Houston, Durant got a technical foul for a little confrontation with Omer Asik. More than once in the series he could be heard shouting into the crowd that Houston was “(his) city,” a confusing declaration for a guy from Washington, D.C. Then TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal accused him of pouting during a Game 5 loss. After Rockets rookie Royce White sent Durant a Twitter message saying the Thunder were “shaky,” Durant took a little swipe at White’s fear of flying, saying, “Ain’t that the guy that can’t, that’s afraid to fly? I wish him the best.”
So it was eventful. It wasn’t that Durant ever did anything controversial or wrong or underhanded or anything like that. It was just that there was a little more hot sauce in the gumbo this week.
“I was starting to hate those guys,” Durant said Friday night. “I was starting to hate every one of those guys on their team.”
There were some obvious reasons for that. Rockets point guard Patrick Beverly knocked Thunder guard Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs with a steal attempt in Game 1 that was annoying at best, bush league at worst. That play changed everything about the series and the Thunder’s chances at an NBA title.
And this all happened a matter of days after Durant made a big ol’ deal about how tired he is of being second. Second pick in the draft, second in scoring, second in the Finals last year. This is the kind of thing you say when you really believe you’re going to be first this time. It was the big setup, a defining narrative, and it was torn apart like Westbrook’s meniscus.
For the next five games, it was all on Durant and he knew it and the Rockets knew it.
Houston’s defensive approach was desperate, maybe funny. The 2012-13 Rockets were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, and they made it simple for themselves. They were going to swarm around Durant and just hope Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher missed.
That worked in Games 4 and 5. The Rockets didn’t really stop Durant, but everybody else missed. Until Friday. Friday, Martin and Fisher combined to go 6-for-10 from the 3-point line, and the Thunder made five threes on top of that.
Then it came to Jackson.
“We don’t want him to be Russell,” Durant said. “We want him to be himself.”
Jackson had 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 44 minutes.
And that was how the series was decided. Houston didn’t shoot particularly well Friday (41 percent), but the Rockets made 14 3-pointers, they out-rebounded the Thunder by two, and they held Durant to a manageable 27-point night on 11-for-23 shooting. But when it came right down to the time when the series was going to get closed out or moved back to Oklahoma City for a scary Game 7, the league’s fastest-paced offense started to bog. Without any serious low-post scoring threat, the Rockets needed James Harden and Chandler Parsons to make some hero shots, and they were all heroed out by then. The Thunder won the fourth quarter 25-17.
“You could see us growing up as the game went along,” Durant said.
So the series was won and over and Durant lurched into the postgame press conference the way 6-foot-9 guys do. He had on that backpack and a T-shirt and he looked and sounded very much like that kid everybody knows and likes, the Olympian, the Doodle Jump guy, the great teammate.
And about that hate thing? Maybe that was a little strong.
“It’s not like I don’t like any of those guys on the team,” he said. “It’s just competing against them so hard.”