May 3, 2016
Thunder ties series
As the lights came back on following some strange halftime show, Kevin Durant walked out of the locker room to midcourt and stopped. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Ahead was the biggest second half of his season, and one of the biggest of his career. So much was on his shoulders as the Oklahoma City Thunder clung to a three-point lead in the cauldron of the steamy AT&T Center, a place where the San Antonio Spurs had lost only once this season (and that was to the greatest regular-season team of all time, mind you).
Just two days ago, the Spurs blitzed the Thunder in a 32-point evisceration that left plenty of doubts not just about OKC’s chances in the series but about their future in general. As free agent-to-be Durant absorbed that fourth quarter from the bench, what could he be thinking? And if more of the same was to come in Game 2, as so many expected, what then?
The second half was about to start and Durant walked back on the floor, patting his chest, then his back, then pointing to where his friends and family sat courtside, as he always does. Twenty-four minutes ahead to try and dodge every haymaker the Spurs were about to throw. Twenty-four minutes to try and wipe away Game 1 and leave San Antonio with the desired result.
In the aftermath of Game 1’s embarrassment, Durant was steely, not sharing his emotions, not letting anyone know what he was feeling. His message was simple: That’s over — we move on. He didn’t go around and try and coach up his teammates. He didn’t have any rah-rah speech planned. He had an expectation of his teammates and a hope that they’d follow his lead. His demeanor in Game 2 toed the line between “odd” and “focused.” His first real fist pump didn’t come until Dion Waiters splashed a corner 3 to put the Thunder up five with 2:29 left.
He let out a slightly bigger one when he hit what appeared to be the dagger, an awkward leaning jumper with 33 seconds left to put the Thunder up five.
But knowing what the Thunder have endured down the stretch in close games this season, with the well-known stat of 14 blown fourth-quarter leads and their negative clutch-time plus minus, Durant didn’t release his emotions until that final horn sounded. With a manic final 20 seconds that featured Serge Ibaka fouling LaMarcus Aldridge on a 3, then an OKC turnover that gave the Spurs a chance to win it, the Thunder nearly unraveled.
Instead, with the ball rolling all over the floor, the buzzer sounded, allowing the Thunder to walk away with their split, 98-97, Durant balled both fists and unleashed a roar. In the locker room, before he walked to the podium, he joked to Russell Westbrook about wanting to be asked about how he was feeling after this one. The first question granted his wish.
“I’m not telling you,” he said, before cracking a small smile, a call back to his response following Game 1.
“It was an up-and-down game, all game, it was a grind-it-out,” he said. “I don’t really know what happened on that last play. I just know we were able to come out on top.”
There’s no way to really summarize how the game ended. Calling it chaos is like calling preschool recess organized. It was a complete malfunction of basketball, starting with Manu Ginobili crowding Waiters, who as the inbounder pushed Ginobili. Waiters’ arching pass to Durant was stolen, with jerseys being grabbed everywhere, before the Spurs failed to convert on a 3-on-1 with Patty Mills air-balling a corner 3, sparking a rugby scrum for the rebound as the clock expired.
Those last 15 seconds are the conversation, they’re what will be digested throughout the news cycle Tuesday. But they’ll overshadow the brilliant bounce-back performance from the Thunder, responding to one of the franchise’s lowest days with a resounding road win.
They led by one entering the fourth quarter, and expanded the lead to nine after the first five minutes. Danny Green hit two 3s to trim the lead to three with 6:40 left, and it was on Westbrook, Durant and the Thunder to conquer one of their greatest enemies. Not the Spurs — crunch time.
Those final six minutes are what they’ve worked all year for. Those final six minutes are a primary reason why Scott Brooks was fired and Billy Donovan was hired. The Thunder have always stalled into a predictable isolation offense, watching tight postseason games get away from them in the final few minutes. But on Monday, behind brilliant shot-making by Durant, the trust of an extra pass to the open man in the corner, and the hyper-speed transition jets of Westbrook, the Thunder found a way.
“We never say ‘Here we go again,’ because honestly we don’t think we gave away leads in the fourth quarter as many times as you may think,” Westbrook said. “We came out and competed at a high level like we’ve been doing all season long. Made plays, made shots and came out with the win.”
It’s one win for the Thunder, and now the series transfers to Oklahoma City. They’ve accomplished the toughest part of the quest, winning the required one game in San Antonio. But even with the brief celebration and exhale of emotion, Durant and Westbrook were quick to reset focus. Asked if they feel like they accomplished their mission by walking away with a split after a 32-point loss in Game 1, Westbrook sarcastically laughed. Then Durant joined in with a chuckle.
“Yeah, good win,” Westbrook said.
“Good win,” Durant echoed. “We move on.”