The moment came Tuesday night like it always does in close games.
But this time Kevin Durant was ready for it.
When the referees swallowed their whistles and Joe Johnson tightened up his defense, Durant did something he hasn’t done much this season. He pushed back. The Thunder’s frail forward didn’t get frustrated. He got even. And with 2:48 remaining, after Durant and Johnson spent too many seconds bumping and battling for position, the refs finally rewarded Durant with a personal foul call on Johnson.
The sequence summed up what Durant seemingly must do from here out to not get knocked off his spot.
“That’s a part of being a superstar in this league,” said Russell Westbrook. “You’re going to have to work for it every time you get the ball. But we’re patient. We don’t mind letting him work to get open, let him fight a little bit. He’s tough so he’ll be all right.”
Problem was, to this point Durant wasn’t being tough enough. Too many times in the past he’d throw up his hands, literally and figuratively, and give up on the play. The defense would win. Opponents pestered him enough to take him out of the possession. Durant doesn’t deny it.
“I wasn’t being as aggressive as I should have been,” Durant said. “I didn’t want to get offensive fouls. I didn’t know if I was being too aggressive.”
Clearly, his mentality has changed, evolving to the point where he no longer will allow players to disrupt the Thunder’s entire offense or prevent him from getting his touches. Johnson used every bit of his 6-feet-7 inches and 240 pounds to harass Durant. But finally, against one of the league’s strongest wing players, Durant employed a much more effective counter than simply running out to halfcourt to free himself.
“Be physical with them,” Durant said with a sense of pride. “I know I’m not as strong as those guys but just continue to be physical with them. If the ref sees it then I’ll get a foul. If not, I’ll get the ball.”
Coach Scott Brooks talked about how Durant needs to be smart in those situations. It’s a fine line between battling and being baited. On Tuesday night, Durant was savvy. He used his body instead of shoving with his arms. He tried to dupe the defense with change-of-pace tactics when curling off pin-downs rather than supplying the same steady dose of speed.
“You just have to be a smart offensive player and Kevin is becoming that,” Brooks said.
- With 33 points Tuesday night, Kevin Durant tied Denver’s Carmelo Anthony for the scoring lead at 29.7 points per game. Said Russell Westbrook, “I won’t be surprised at all if he passes him.”
- Call me silly, but I’m more impressed with Durant’s 11 rebounds. The guy averaged 4.3 boards as a rookie and is up to more than 7.5 now. Durant has now pulled down 10 or more rebounds in eight of his past 13 games.
- Ever since I wrote an article asking the question, ‘What’s wrong with Jeff Green,” dude has been terrific. Not saying it had anything to do with my article. (He probably didn’t even read it). But in these four games since, he’s averaged 18 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 48.2 percent shooting. Scott Brooks called it.
- What does it say about Russell Westbrook when, in one of his less impressive outings, he puts up 12 points, nine rebounds and nine assists with only one turnover? Answer: he’s pretty good.
- Largely because of Westbrook, the Thunder turned the ball over just seven times tonight, a season-low.
- It helped that Durant had only two.
- The Thunder had as many blocks as turnovers. Wonder how often that happens to a team in the NBA?
- Serge Ibaka was huge early. He got two early blocks and drilled a 17-footer that was smooth. He was active around the rim and kept a lot of possessions alive with his length and timing tipping the ball even though the stat sheet says he got only four rebounds.
- The Thunder out-rebounded Atlanta 45-35 and held the Hawks, active forwards to just nine offensive rebounds.
- Even though the Thunder won this game, here’s the difference between a maturing team and a playoff team: the Hawks converted those nine offensive boards into 21 second-chance points. The Thunder had 17 offensive boards and scored just 16 second-chance points. That, and points off turnovers (even though Atlanta didn’t do a great job in the second area), are two categories that helps turns good teams into great teams.
- The Hawks became the fourth team OKC has swept this season, joining Detroit, Miami and Washington. The Thunder didn’t sweep anyone last year.
- Ibaka and Marvin Williams got into it a little bit in the first half. Williams was very heated. It’s the second time Ibaka has rattled a player inside the Ford Center. Stephen Jackson had a few words for the rookie when Charlotte came to town on Dec. 26.
- Got to give it up to Nenad Krstic, who has been awful lately but bounced back in the second half tonight when his team needed him. After going scoreless with three rebounds and a steal in the first half, Krstic scored eight points with four rebounds and a blocked shot in the second half. I thought his energy to start the third quarter was a big factor that will go overlooked. All eight of his points came in the first five minutes, as the Thunder opened a 63-57 lead in the third period.
- Joe Johnson is one of about six players I’d pay to watch if I knew the game was going to be close. He was clutch again tonight, sinking basket after basket to bring the Hawks back. He had 23 points on 9 of 12 shooting in the second half.
- Brooks almost blew it by leaving James Harden in rather than putting Thabo Sefolosha in earlier. Fortunately, Brooks brought the starters back with 5:47 left to play and Johnson had only two more points (on free throws) and one assist the rest of the way.
- Etan Thomas was not in the arena tonight. The official word was he was not with the team for personal reasons. Let the trade rumors begin…..now.
- Be honest, did you really think the Thunder would be 27-21 after 48 games?
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on Russell Westbrook: “Russell is just improving right in front of our eyes…I thought his execution in the fourth quarter was as good as it gets.”
- Brooks on the season-low turnovers: “It was huge. Going into the game, that was one of our keys…We know this team does not turn over the ball. They’re the league leader in the least amount of turnovers and they had eight tonight so that was below their average. We didn’t want to have a big turnover game.”
- Westbrook on the win: “It shows the maturity of our team and how good we’re getting. This was a great game for us…This just shows the progression of the team. I think we did a great job of closing down the stretch, rebounding and doing whatever it takes to win.”
- Atlanta coach Mike Woodson on Kevin Durant: “I look at him now, he is playing like an MVP candidate in this league. I think he is having a hell of a year. He is a smooth player. He scores very, very easy. That is hard to do in this league. Only the great ones can do that. He’s pretty good.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Game wining streak for the Thunder, tied for the second longest this season.
7: Turnovers for the Thunder, a season-low.
14: Free throws attempted and made for Kevin Durant.
37: Points for Joe Johnson, a game-high.
106: Points scored by the Thunder, which is now 19-2 when scoring 100 or more.
17,360: Announced attendance at the Ford Center.