CLEVELAND — Kevin Durant came out pressing, evidently under the impression he could put away a crippled Cleveland squad with one shot.
He missed five of his first six attempts despite a clear matchup advantage and figured things would get worse before they got better.
“I had it in my mind I was going to start the game off 1-for-10,” Durant said.
But Durant avoided that fate when he settled down and settled in. He swished seven of his next eight field goals, and when he came alive he helped the Thunder overcome a slow start and avoid its second stunning loss to the Cavs this season.
A furious fourth-quarter rally by Cleveland is all that made the contest’s final score, a 102-95 decision, appear respectable. But the Thunder built a 24-point lead and never trailed in the second half.
Durant finished with a game-high 35 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He went 12-for-21 from the floor, carrying the Thunder as point guard Russell Westbrook received a scheduled night off to rest on the first game of a back-to-back.
“My shot was a little flat, and I missed some easy ones,” Durant said of his start. “But I just try to play as hard as I can on defense and make winning basketball plays. If my shot is going to fall, it’s going to fall. If it’s not, just keep playing.”
The turning point came with 3:10 remaining in the opening period, when Durant corralled a missed 19-footer by Nick Collison and converted a layup. It pulled the Thunder, which missed 11 of its first 17 shots, within 21-16 and ignited a hot hand that the Cavs had trouble cooling off.
On this night, that was a near-impossible task.
Cleveland came into the game missing its best two players, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving (biceps) and starting small forward Luol Deng (ankle). The Cavs also were without key reserve C.J. Miles because of an ankle injury. Deng and Miles would have been trusted with the bulk of the responsibility of slowing Durant. But with both sidelined, the Cavs started Alonzo Gee against Durant.
Less than two minutes into the game, Gee was saddled with two fouls, forcing him to the bench.
Cleveland had few other options for Durant. Cavs coach Mike Brown called on Matthew Dellavedova, a rookie shooting guard who checked in with a six-inch, 25-pound disadvantage.
Dellavedova battled the three-time scoring champ as best he could. But when Durant beat him backdoor for a dunk off a feed from Collison, the floodgates were open.
All it took was one hustle play and one heady one.
“They did a good job of really bodying him up early in the game, and they were sending a (second) guy over,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s seen every defense thrown at him, so it took him a few minutes to adjust to that.”
Durant netted 11 points in the second quarter, punctuating the period with a sick crossover and pull-up jumper to beat the buzzer. It capped a 35-point frame for the Thunder and put OKC ahead, 56-46, at the break.
Better spacing and ball movement allowed the Thunder to break open the game. After registering only two assists in the first quarter, the Thunder dished 10 assists on its 14 field goals in the second quarter. The bench contributed six of those helpers, with four of the five bench who saw action in the period recording at least one.
“I thought If we could move their feet then we were going to get good shots. And I thought the guys did a great job in that second quarter,” Brooks said. “I thought we did a good job throughout the game. Unfortunately, we had about a three-minute stretch where we stopped defending and they made some tough shots.”
Cleveland used a 21-2 run to cut a 95-71 Thunder lead with 6:34 left to play to five inside the final two minutes. Eleven unanswered points forced Brooks to reinsert Durant and Reggie Jackson. After five more unanswered points brought the Cavs within eight, forward Serge Ibaka returned.
A steal and layup by Cavs guard Dion Waiters (team-high 30 points) trimmed the deficit to 97-92 with 1:12 remaining.
But the Thunder closed out the Cavs by making five of eight free throws inside the final minute.
“Anything can happen in this league,” Durant said. “Guys have pride, and Cleveland plays extremely hard. Those guys made it a game late. We just had to close it out.”