While you were cozily tucked in late Wednesday, perhaps uninterested in staying up past midnight to watch the Thunder take on the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers, Kevin Durant was busy delivering his breakthrough performance in Game No. 8 of what many consider the season that will be his coming out party.
Durant dominated the Clippers in every respect before the final buzzer sounded on the Thunder’s 83-79 win, undoubtedly assembling his best and most complete outing of his two-plus years.
On this night, Durant arrived, his coronation unfortunately coming courtesy of L.A.’s forgotten team, which had only a generously-announced 14,248 spectators sprinkled throughout Staples Center as witnesses.
Statistically, Durant has had more impressive showings. His line Wednesday — 30 points, 10 rebounds and four assists — won’t wow you because it’s what we’ve come to expect of Durant. On numbers alone, this wasn’t even Durant’s best night in Staples Center. He poured in career-highs of 46 points and 15 rebounds against the Clippers last January, getting to the foul line 26 times and swishing 24 freebies. Both the attempts and the makes from the stripe stand as franchise records.
But this game wasn’t about numbers. It was about winning, which the Thunder failed to do against a short-handed Clippers team last winter despite Durant’s career night. It was about the mega-talented Durant, maybe for the first time, coming to the realization that he is capable of doing whatever he needs to do on the court to lead his teammates to victory.
Durant hunkered down on defense, playing the passing lanes and pestering his man to come up with steals and deflections. Durant played point forward offensively, controlling the ball and the pace of the Thunder’s offense throughout much of his 36 minutes, 22 seconds. He created for himself and others, refusing to settle but rather weaving his way into the lane for easy baskets or showing off an improved mid-range game with pull-up jumpers. Durant’s first 3-point attempt didn’t come until the opening seconds of the second quarter.
And this time, on a play that illustrated everything he did right offensively, Durant netted the big shot.
The Thunder took a 78-71 lead with 5:43 left to play but scored just one point over the next five minutes as the Clippers crept back to tie the score at 79-all. Thunder coach Scott Brooks then ran an isolation for Durant on the left wing. With Al Thornton defending closely, Durant drove left with two dribbles before reaching the baseline. He stopped and hit a step-back jumper over Thornton with 38.9 seconds remaining.
“That’s what I do,” Durant said. “That’s what I’m here for is to make big plays, miss or make.”
It wasn’t the make that stood out. It was the decision-making.
Equally impressive, although it will be overshadowed, was the play in which Durant didn’t take the shot. It came on a sequence that saw the Thunder aiming to milk the final 27.3 seconds off the game clock with the shot clock showing a 4.3-second differential. With all eyes on Durant as he stood near halfcourt, much like he did against the Lakers before settling for a 28-footer, Durant jabbed right took one dribble left and passed to a wide open Jeff Green after Marcus Camby helped. Green swung it to Kevin Ollie in the left corner. Ollie missed a 3-point attempt but retrieved the rebound and iced the game with a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds remaining.
“We’ve definitely made some strides,” said Nick Collison. “I think we’re just starting to learn how to play. What I like is we have a lot of guys just concerned with winning and making winning plays.”
Durant did both Wednesday and assumed his rightful place at the front of the line on a night that you might have viewed simply as Game No. 8 of his third season.
- I just wrote all that then looked at the box score and saw Durant was a minus-2 in the plus-minus. Exhibit A of why I’m not big on stats. Durant played his tail off.
- Russell Westbrook had a terrible night. He was out of control, then he was out of the game with a mild left ankle sprain. Marcus Camby stepped on his left ankle with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter. Westbrook returned to the bench with 1:07 left in the third and was said to be available to return but didn’t. He finished 1-for-11 with two points, two rebounds, two turnovers and three assists in 22 minutes. Westbrook’s lone basket didn’t come until a tip-in with 7:13 left in the third quarter. Now watch him have a career night at San Antonio on Saturday.
- Serge Ibaka looks to be getting some burn now. Scott Brooks has stuck him in there inside the final three minutes of the first half the past two games. But tonight Ibaka also got some run at the end of the third quarter and most of the fourth until fouling out with 1:36 left to play. Maybe his time has come.
- Ibaka had a great sequence midway through the fourth when he contested Chris Kaman’s baseline jumper on one end, forcing the Clippers’ big man into an airball. Then, he had a driving layup at the other end to give the Thunder a 76-71 lead.
- Because of Ibaka’s effectiveness, Etan Thomas played just six minutes.
- Give Nenad Krstic credit for his excellent defense on Chris Kaman on the Clippers second-to-last possession. The refs, however, seemed to have missed a traveling violation and Kaman stepping out of bounds.
- Speaking of Krstic, I saw a mean streak out him for the first time since he joined the team. It happened in the final second of the first quarter when Baron Davis drove the lane and held Krstic’s jersey for no reason. Krstic took exception and got in Davis’ face. It was a real shocker considering Krstic is one of the nicest guys in the league.
- Kevin Ollie is the unsung hero tonight. The big steal on Kaman’s bad pass. A couple of big shots. And just overall solid play in relief of the ineffective Westbrook. Maybe the demands for Shaun Livingston will be silenced now. I doubt it.
- James Harden is coming along nicely. This was probably his best game yet. He passed, rebounded and scored when the opportunity presented itself. It was a very encouraging performance.
- I’d assume Harden had the majority of fourth-quarter minutes because Brooks didn’t need Thabo Sefolosha’s defense nearly as much against Rasual Butler. Still, it was valuable experience for the rookie.
- Kaman hit Nick Collison with the “Dream Shake” from the left block with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter. I didn’t know Kaman had that in him.
- The Thunder closed the third quarter on a 10-4 run to pull within three after trailing by as many as nine in the period.
- If you ever wonder whether all that talk about the Thunder’s chemistry is a bunch of hot air, all you needed to do was watch this game. The Clippers chew each other out on every turnover, every missed assignment and every pass that is fumbled and results in a ruined assist. It’s shocking.
- Too many Thunder players have begun a disturbing trend of leaving their feet on pump fakes. It’s leading to an open shot by the man doing the pump fake or resulting in an open shot elsewhere because someone has to rotate over to help.
- Jeff Green big-boyed Al Thornton every time he matched up against him in the post. Green tried to do it against Kaman late and he traveled. Green almost became this game’s goat when followed up his traveling violation by fouling Thornton on a 3-pointer. Thornton made all three to tie the score at 79-79.
- Baron Davis torched the Thunder’s defense all game with his passing and complemented his dishes with timely aggressiveness as a scorer. He finished with, get this, 17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, three steals, two blocked shots and zero turnovers.
- DeAndre Jordan air-balled the first of two free throws with 10:58 left in the fourth and you could clearly hear him scream, “Oh (expletive).”
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on the win: “We’re going to stay humble in our victory. But it’s important that we defend. I said it all summer long and all through training camp, defense is going to be our identity. We’re going to have to play gritty, scrappy basketball.”
- Brooks on Kevin Durant: “He’s a special player. He works hard, and I’m proud of the fact he got 10 rebounds. He had a nice offensive game going other than missing three free throws after 18 in a row last night. But he had a good game because he competed on both ends of the floor.”
- Brooks on Serge Ibaka: “Like I said after the game to the guys, that’s not easy to do, sit out four or five games and only play a couple of minutes here and there. And to come in with that type of confidence, that says a lot about what he’s been doing with coach (Mark) Bryant and preparing himself to get ready and be prepared. He comes in with great energy. We know that. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s a serious competitor.”
- Kevin Ollie on the win and his performance: “It was a great win for us. It was a total team effort. I just tried to come in and spark us. Russell’s ankle was king of hurting. We played a collective great game and we did it on the defensive end. We didn’t score that many points, but we got stops when we needed it.”
- Ollie on Durant: “Our big fella, KD, was knocking down big shots. That shot in the corner, I don’t know how he made it but he does make them. He’s just a great player and we just try to rally around him.”
- Kevin Durant on his game-winning shot: “It feels good to know that my team has confidence in me. I couldn’t hit the shot in the last game and the couple before that, but tonight it went in.”
- Nick Collison on the fourth win and last season’s 3-29 start: “There are no words to describe how disappointing that start was last year. We knew we weren’t that bad a team but we played hard.”
- Chris Kaman on Durant: “Durant is 6-10 who can make amazing shots. It is very hard to guard him. If you put someone on him that’s too big then he just gets around him. And if you put someone on him that’s too small he’ll post up and take advantage of him.”
- Mike Dunleavy: “If you told me before this game we would hold them to this amount of points based on our shooting, I would’ve told you we would have a very good chance.”
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Fast break points for the Clippers.
10: Clipper points in the fourth quarter.
12: Lead changes.
22: Percent shooting by the Clippers in the fourth quarter.
30: Points for Kevin Durant, his second straight game with 30 points or more.
35.9: Percent shooting by L.A., a new opponent season-low for the Thunder.
14,248: Announced attendance at Staples Center.