The difference this time was just the magnitude of his magic.
Durant drilled a step-back jumper from the left wing over the outstretched arms of Rudy Gay with 35.4 seconds remaining Wednesday night to lift the Thunder to a 98-95 win over Memphis inside the FedExForum.
“I had to let it fly,” Durant said. “That was a prayer, buddy.”
He could have fooled us. It’d be much easier to believe Durant didn’t plan that high-arching, game-clincher if he hadn’t put the Grizzlies away in the same fashion last spring.
The reigning two-time scoring champion finished off Memphis in Game 4 from nearly the exact same spot. Instead of Gay, his defender was Shane Battier. Rather than a step-back jumper, Durant hit Battier with a shake-and-bake pull-up. And only 29.3 seconds were left in that triple-overtime thriller.
“Kevin’s really improved a lot in how he gets his points,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s thinking the game more, but that just comes with maturity.”
Durant scored nine of his game-high 32 points in the final period. He made all three of his shots from the field in the quarter, had two assists and iced the game with a pair of free throws with one second remaining.
The Thunder needed every bit, with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook mired in perhaps the worst performance of his career. Two nights after Durant, Westbrook and Harden combined for 77 of the Thunder’s points 104 points at Minnesota, Westbrook missed all 13 of his shot attempts and finished with four points, six assists and four turnovers.
Durant started just 1-of-5 from the field but picked up his play as the game went along; seemingly sensing his team needed him.
“I think I’m maturing as a player,” Durant said. “Last year, I would have gotten off to a slow start and let it affect me. But I just tried to keep my composure and believe in myself and know that I worked hard and the shots that I was missing were going to fall. I started off terrible. I thought I was going to have a really, really bad game after the first shot I took didn’t even touch the rim.”
Brooks was most pleased with the versatility Durant displayed, particularly his passing. Durant finished with three assists against two turnovers, continuing a promising trend that has seen Durant record more assists than turnovers in each of the Thunder’s first three games.
It could be the start of something special in a much-needed area for a player who had more turnovers than assists in each of his first four seasons.
“We’ve challenged Kevin (in) starting the year just continuing to get better, not only get better in ways that he scores but also ways that he can help his teammates score,” Brooks said. “The way he’s passing the ball, he’s passing right on time and he’s passing right on target. I think everybody’s enjoying that part of his improvement.”
Durant’s final assist was the biggest of the night. After James Harden made an entry pass into Durant on the right high post, Durant read the defense and fired a pass back out to a flaring Harden at the top of the key. Harden then drilled a 3-pointer to cap a 14-1 run that turned a 76-75 deficit into an 89-77 advantage with 5:25 left to play.
“It was all basketball instincts,” said Harden after scoring 20 points. “It was something we’ve learned over these last couple of years.”
The win bumped the Thunder to 3-0, the first time the franchise has started a season with three straight wins since relocating to Oklahoma City.
“It feels good,” said Daequan Cook, who finished with nine points off the bench. “Especially coming on the road and getting tough wins in teams’ home openers. Now we get to go back home and play in front of our fans again. We’re looking forward to it.”