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.