Nick Collison slowly sauntered toward midcourt, his shoulders slumped, like a coal miner finally off a 12-hour shift.
His Thunder teammates were already there, celebrating and receiving congrats for their conquest of the Memphis Grizzlies.
No surprise there. Good things always happen to the Thunder when Collison takes the hardwood.
The Thunder bested Memphis 105-90 in a memorable Game 7 Sunday to reach the Western Conference Finals.
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins had called the Thunder the more glamorous team, and no doubt he's right.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Between Staples Center and South Beach, the most star power on one NBA franchise is playing right here on Reno Avenue.
Durant and Westbrook certainly cemented their superstar status Sunday.
Durant was spectacular, shaking off 3-of-14 shooting in Game 6 and 2-of-9 shooting in the first quarter Sunday. His 39 points will be the stuff of Oklahoma City legend, and don't think the entire league failed to notice how Durant responded on this Game 7 stage.
Westbrook was fabulous, with 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. His triple double is just the fifth in Game 7 history, and Westbrook would have been there in the third quarter, except he was stuck on eight points.
But Collison is Reason No. 1 the Thunder is headed to Dallas for a Final Four showdown against the Mavericks.
Collison made the biggest difference in the game.
“Nick Collison was the best player tonight as far as helping us get this win,” Durant said.
Collison played magnificent defense on Memphis star Zach Randolph.
The Grizzlies were going only as far as Randolph could take them offensively. And Randolph couldn't take them far with Collison on the court.
Collison played 33 minutes Sunday. His numbers were superb; eight points on 3-of-4 shooting, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots.
But here are all the numbers you need to know. In 13 minutes against Serge Ibaka, Randolph made four of seven shots and scored 10 points. In 25 minutes against Collison, Randolph made two of eight shots and scored seven points.
“The toughness he displayed on Zach, Nick challenged him possession after possession,” Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said.
When Collison was on the court Sunday, the Thunder outscored Memphis 79-53. 79-53!
“I like to think I make a difference, particularly defensively,” Collison said. “It doesn't take much, a couple of stops, to get us going, usually.”
Collison gave Randolph no room. When Big Zach had the ball. When he didn't. When he was chasing it off the backboard.
By the way, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed were bulwarks in the middle, too. That's what makes the Thunder a title contender.
They've got the glam guys in Durant and Westbrook. And they've got the glue guys like Collison, protecting the basket with uncommon zeal and setting screens that give Durant the little wiggle room he needs.
“He's a winner,” Brooks said of Collison. “He just has a knack for making winning basketball plays, every time down court.”
Such play comes at a price. While Westbrook and James Harden and even Durant sometimes seem as energetic in the final minutes as they did in the first minutes, that's never the case with Collison.
He's worn out by 33 head-banging and body-banging minutes.
“I was tired,” Collison said. “I was tired in the first half. But I tried to just play through it. Kind of got my second wind in the second half.
“As I've gotten older (he's 30), I've learned to just keep pushing. Eventually you kind of get that second wind. Eventually you realize you're not going to die. That's kind of my mindset. Keep going, keep going, and good things will happen.”
Keep putting Nick Collison into big games, which are the only kind left, and good things will happen to the Thunder.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at