If Kevin Durant’s blitz at the end of the fourth quarter Wednesday doesn’t finish as his signature moment of the 2011 playoffs, then may God have mercy on the Western Conference and my distressed vital organs.
There used to be a few candidates for the moment when KD stamped himself as a superstar in the NBA. There was no definitive answer. Winning his first league scoring title, leading the “B Team” to a World Championship, starting the All Star Game — all could be argued. But that debate ended Wednesday. NBA superstars make their names in the playoffs, and KD just made his. Scoring nine points in the final 3:24 of the series-clinching win over the Nuggets, along with a key block, is his moment.
For now, at least. The second round awaits, and Wednesday night was the kind that leaves you wanting more. And I’ll bet Durant feels the same way.
Durant’s run answered any possible nagging doubt you could have about his ability to take over just like he did against the Nuggets. The relatively poor shooting on iso sets late in games? Not a problem on Wednesday. Getting to his spots? Did so just fine, thank you. Getting separation from good defenders? Check. Making plays on defense? Ask J.R. Smith about that. Finding the open man instead of taking a bad shot? James Harden splashed his tying 3-pointer off a KD pass right before Durant’s finishing scoring run. Picking up his team on the offensive end and carrying it to a come-from-behind, pressure-packed victory? It just happened.
How many kids in Oklahoma are going to head out to the basketball goal in their driveway after school today and reenact Wednesday night’s comeback? I know that’s what I would have been doing at that age. I can’t tell you how many times I shot a fadeaway jumper in my driveway yelling, “Jordan …. YESSSSS!” with every made shot. I’m sure kids have been doing that routine with Durant in mind for awhile, but there will be more now. Game 5 will play out on Oklahoma driveways an untold number of times through the rest of the spring and summer.
The beauty of Wednesday’s Game 5 performance is that Durant seemed to lift his teammates along with him. It looked bleak when Denver took that late nine-point lead. I know my thoughts were already drifting to Game 6, and likely a Game 7. But the Thunder’s leader led them. Harden complemented his trey with a key block on Arron Afflalo. Serge Ibaka added two more blocks in the late run just when you thought he couldn’t possibly do more to change the game on that end. Everyone else was active, intense and ready. Russell Westbrook, who couldn’t buy a shot as he struggled mentally in the aftermath of his well-publicized struggles in Game 4, deferred to KD when it mattered most. (And, for the record, I will ride with Westbrook any time. Period.)
And though Durant was complimentary of the crowd, KD was the one who lifted Oklahoma City fans in the arena to a higher level. I predicted Wednesday that the Game 5 crowd would be the loudest in the city’s history. Except for the final four minutes or so, I could not have been more wrong. The crowd sucked for most of the game, to put it bluntly. For a few possessions at the beginning, it was a normal still-the-Ford Center playoff crowd. But for most of the rest of the night, the crowd was too nervous to truly affect the game. “DE-FENSE” chants were half-hearted. The roars came on made shots, but the anguished screams from bad misses added to the tension in the arena. Only when Durant rose to the occasion late in the game did the crowd do the same.
What happened Wednesday was what Thunder fans have dreamed of since the last half of the team’s inaugural season here when it became evident that OKC had some fight and some real promise. Our superstar played like one when his team, and his fans, needed him the most.
But we’re not done yet. The chance for more heroics will begin as soon as the Grizzlies and Spurs decide their series. As scintillating as Durant’s performance was Wednesday, the best may be yet to come. Sign me up for that.