Before he launches those heart-stopping shots that make lasting memories for so many, Kevin Durant has that reassuring look. It's the same expression that all the great clutch players throughout the history of the game carried, a visage of self-assurance and a sense of control in the most critical of situations.
“You can tell he wants it,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the last-second shot. “In his mind, he's preparing himself that he's making it. I'm sure he has a visual routine that he performs before the play is even run.”
It's a simple one for Durant, but it's the key to his triumphs under pressure, when the clock is low, his team is trailing and the fate of the game rests in his hands.
“I'm just trying to focus and see where (coach) is going to have me shoot the shot from; and just try to be as calm as I can,” Durant said.
If there is indeed a clutch gene, Durant has it. He's ranked among the top players in clutch time production in each of the past three seasons, sinking one improbable game-winning shot after another while making them look easy.
In its annual poll of the league's 30 general managers, NBA.com revealed that 46.7 percent of GMs would want Durant taking the final shot with the game on the line. Durant supplanted Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who garnered 48.1 percent of last year's vote and has long been lauded as king in the clutch.
‘He's fearless,” said Denver guard Ty Lawson, a former AAU and high school teammate of Durant. “He knows he can shoot well and he can create his own shot so that's what he does. A lot of people don't have that in the last couple of minutes of a game. They're not fearless. But he's definitely one of them.”
Add confidence and consistency to Durant's unwavering fearlessness and focus and it forms the perfect blend for a clutch performer.
“It's just all about having confidence in myself,” Durant said. “I know I'm going to get the opportunity. Nine times out of 10 I'm going to get the opportunity to shoot those shots, and I'll probably make four out of 10 or three out of 10. But just having that confidence every time you step up to the plate is what's important.”
Durant has made great strides in that respect. In his first two seasons, Durant struggled to supply late-game heroics. He hit one game-winner as a rookie and missed a boatload in his second season. He was learning to deal with the magnitude of the moment.
“In the past I always put too much pressure on myself,” Durant said. “But I learned that it's always another game. The worst thing that can happen in this whole thing is that we lose. It's not an end of the world situation.”
Calm. Cool. Collected.
That's what Durant is now when serving up daggers.
“I wouldn't say that I'm the most clutch player in the league or I'm where I want to be,” Durant said. “I got a long way to go. I'm just going to continue to have confidence in myself.”
Durant's confidence comes on the practice court, where coaches and teammates witness him simulating countless situations to prepare for the real thing. It never matters how many he's made or missed.
“You see him every morning, you don't know if he had a great game or a bad game,” Brooks said. “That's a sign of a guy that is clutch in my eyes. Miss a shot, it doesn't matter. He feels like he's going to make the next one. Make a shot, it doesn't matter. He has to still prepare like he did before that shot. He has that. Some guys don't because they're not willing to be the goat. You have to be willing to be the goat as much as you're excited about being the hero.”
Durant no longer has a fear of either. Just look into his eyes the next time he's in the huddle with the game hanging in the balance.
“You can see on somebody's face if they want the ball,” Lawson said. “They might stay in the back. They might look away. They might be shaking a little bit. But if you look in somebody's eyes, you can tell if they want the ball or not in the last couple of seconds.”
Durant wants it.
“Kevin just has that ability to connect with his team and his coaching staff,” Brooks said. “You know he's there for you. He's going to make big shots…He has a lot of confidence and we do too in him.”
DURANT'S MASTERPIECE MOMENT
A portrait of clutch
It started with a steal.
The score was tied at 98-all when Kevin Durant stepped into the passing lane and picked off a Pau Gasol pass.
Thirty-five ticks were all that remained on the game clock.
Durant's 6-foot-10 inch frame streaked the other way, crossing half-court and stopping just above the 3-point line on the left wing. He flicked a pass to James Harden out near half-court. He immediately got it back.
The shot clock continued to tick … 16, 15, 14.
As Metta World Peace crouched into his defensive stance at the top of the arc, Durant waved off a would-be ball screen by Russell Westbrook. It would have forced a switch and put the smaller Steve Blake on Durant. But Durant didn't want it.
Ten … nine … eight.
Durant started his attack with two dribbles to his right before threading the ball between his legs once and pulling up. He launched a 26-foot bomb over World Peace at the top of the arc and watched it hit nothing but back rim as it went down.
Durant strutted back to his bench barely showing any emotion. But he knew what he had done.
Thunder 101, Lakers 98.
Only 13.7 seconds were left in this Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. Oklahoma City went on to win 103-100, erasing a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 3-1 series lead.
Durant was again clutch.
“For us to come back and win on their home floor with everybody watching probably was the most special one,” Durant said of all his clutch shots.
“It was kind of like a monkey off my back that I did it in the playoffs, against the Lakers who beat us two years before. It was almost like payback. And also, to have one of the greatest closers ever in Kobe Bryant on the floor and to do that against him was pretty cool as well.”