NEW YORK — On a dreary Thursday night in midtown Manhattan, a one-man show took center stage and turned Madison Square Garden into Rucker Park.
On the opposing side, a humble superstar finally relented and started to think a little bit more about himself.
The playground finally was shut down on New York Knicks high-volume guard J.R. Smith, who has never met a shot from a distance he didn’t like.
Smith’s turnaround, 20-footer from the left wing with 1.7 seconds left was long off the heel of the rim and the Thunder was able to survive with a 95-94 victory before a sellout crowd of 19,033 at famed Madison Square Garden.
Through three quarters, Smith had burned OKC (45-16) for 31 points and 12-for-20 shooting, including 5 for 8 from 3-point range, in just 24 minutes of playing time.
No matter who was defending Smith, success was sure to follow.
Trailing 81-75 entering the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense sparked a comeback while Kevin Durant simultaneously – finally – emerged from the shadows.
Smith shot 2 for 9 from the floor and 1 for 5 from 3-point range as the Knicks (37-22) managed just 13 points on 22.2-percent shooting in the final period.
“My jumper was good all night, until the fourth quarter,” Smith said.
Durant countered with 12 points in the final period, which included going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, while Thunder defenders mopped up New York’s shooting mess with 15 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone.
Until the final period, Durant had been off balance, thinking too much of teammates and not enough about himself.
“He was looking too much to be a playmaker, and that’s what he’s done a great job this year of finding the balance,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We all know he can score … Tonight in the second half, I thought he did a much better job of looking for himself.”
Durant finished with 34 points, shooting 9 for 20 from the floor and 14 for 15 from the free-throw line. He also had eight rebounds and six assists, but struggled with seven turnovers while trying to be far too generous.
Smith finished with a game-high 36 points, shooting 14 for 29 from the field, 6 for 13 from 3-point range.
“It was a high-scoring night, but it doesn’t mean anything coming out with a loss,” said Smith, who also had three rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The Knicks were without Carmelo Anthony, the league’s second-leading scorer behind Durant, who is sidelined indefinitely sat with fluid on his knee.
“Without their star,” Durant said of Anthony, “people are going to step up and J.R. Smith was unbelievable tonight.”
Durant got no argument from anyone in an OKC uniform.
“He was making some tough shots,” Brooks said. “He’s one of those guys in this league you can guard him well and he can make some tough shots, and he probably made seven of those. You couldn’t do anything else. He was in a zone. A couple of times we lost him in transition. A couple of times we switched and we didn’t communicate the switch well enough.”
A revolving door of players attempted to defend the 6-foot-6 Smith, including Durant and his 7-foot-5 wingspan.
“When I guarded him,” Durant said, “I tried to make him shoot over the top and if he hit it, you have to pat him on the back.”
In the final sequence, Westbrook drew the short straw and defended Smith.
“I tried to get to my spot where I wanted to get to,” Smith said. “I really should have went to the basket. … They (coaches) told me to take what the defense gives me.”
Westbrook stood his ground, then stayed in front of Smith, who turned his back, faked left, the spun right before hoisting a shot that never looked on-line.
Even more impressive, Westbrook’s defensive stop came on a sprained right ankle he injured toward the end of the first quarter that obviously affected his play.
Westbrook had 15 points, was 5 for 9 from the field and committed zero turnovers before getting his ankle re-taped in the locker room. Thereafter, Westbrook shot just 3 for 13, scored six points and had five turnovers.
The sprain is considered mild and Westbrook is expected to play in Friday’s 6 p.m. game at Charlotte.
Also excelling for the Thunder was power forward Serge Ibaka with 12 points (5 for 7 from the field) , nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Sixth man Kevin Martin, who had often struggled on the road this season, had 16 points, shot 4 for 6 from the field (3 for 5 on 3-pointers) and added four rebounds and four assists.
Reserve point guard Reggie Jackson had eight points, which included draining both of his 3-point attempts.