OKLAHOMA CITY – Across the street from the Chesapeake Arena, there’s a poster of Kevin Durant that covers an entire building wall of this sleepy city’s convention center.
If you look at it from the right angle, the row of trees on West Reno Ave. that cover his jersey and tickle his neck create quite the visual representation of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. Their franchise centerpiece and his uncertain free agency future looms profoundly large at the moment, and every win that extends this season, conceivably, gets them another step closer to convincing him to stay.
It’s the Durant forest through the trees that are this series.
Yet inside this ear-splitting venue in which the locals lived up to the “Roar like Thunder” motto they hold so dear, where the Thunder’s 111-97 win in Game earned them a 2-2 tie with Game 5 on Tuesday in San Antonio, Durant & Co. took the wood to the Spurs at the perfect time. Eight years after he came to town as a 20-year-old with a kid’s physique and a man’s game, this could have been Durant’s last home game here.
Instead, Durant unleashed a 41-point effort so special that it should become required viewing in July when the Thunder make their pitch. There aren’t many spots in this NBA world where a player can be celebrated like this.
With every Durant basket in his nearly perfect fourth quarter – 6-of-6 shooting, 17 points and a defensive effort on the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard that led to his 0-of-5 shooting in the period – the decibel levels rose in ways that even the Thunder hadn’t heard.
“Our crowd was phenomenal tonight, probably the loudest I’ve ever heard them,” said Durant, who has now played in 82 playoff games with the Thunder since arriving from Seattle in 2008. “I just tried to stay in the moment.”
The crescendo came with 2:05 left, when his always-unpredictable co-star, Russell Westbrook, darted past Tony Parker for a surreal steal and found a streaking Durant on the other end of the floor for a layup and a 105-97 lead.
“That was a huge play,” Durant said. “It just shows how great a defender Russ is, when he cuts you off, and gets his hand on the basketball, and make a play up the court – a perfect pass over (Leonard’s) outstretched hand.”
Yet the more pivotal part, the thing that could come into play when Durant reflects on this season and what it says about a potential future in this city, is that his supporting cast was stellar. Even with a five of 18 shooting night, Westbrook (14 points, 15 assists and a plus-18 rating) both led and defended in ways that simply didn’t happen in the Game 3 loss.
Steven Adams, who at 23 years old is already one of the best defensive bigs in the league, had 16 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks. Forward Enes Kanter, whose four-year, $70 million extension signed last summer was so controversial at the time in part because of his defensive shortcomings, got the nod over Serge Ibaka from coach Billy Donovan in the fourth quarter and played all 12 minutes of the period in which San Antonio hit just seven of 21 shots. What’s more, he rewarded Donovan with a nine-point, four-rebound final period (11 points, eight rebounds in all).
“I was on the court in the last quarter, and I just tried to give it everything I had,” Kanter said.
Last but not least, guard Dion Waiters had 17 points on seven of 11 shooting off the bench.
“It’s huge man,” Durant said when asked about Waiters. “We need everybody, especially against a team and he was huge…We are going to need that. We need it from everyone.”
No NBA team has that lightning rod quality like, well, the Thunder. Fans and media members alike effuse praise about their dynamic talents, only to rip them to shreds when the execution falters or the mental mistakes pile up. Channeling the good and the bad into a championship-caliber effort is, in a way, like riding lightning.
The first half defined that dynamic, as the Thunder stumbled into a 10-point, first quarter deficit while showcasing the kind of composure issues that have plagued them for so long. Westbrook drew a technical foul for arguing with official Danny Crawford and nearly earned an ejection when, less than 10 minutes into the first quarter, he lost his cool and nearly bumped Crawford.
Twelve minutes later, a 15-4 Thunder run that put them up 45-44 was capped by a Durant three-pointer that sent the building into hysterics. They had been electric, converting low-odds alley-oops and overwhelming the Spurs with their athleticism and aggressiveness. Yet when the halftime buzzer sounded, the Spurs had closed as only they can – a Leonard three-point play after a baseline dunk, an Aldridge jumper, and two free throws apiece from San Antonio’s young stars – and the Spurs led 53-45 at the break.