LOS ANGELES — Something about Game 6 brings the best out of Kevin Durant.
When his team has needed it most this postseason, Durant has delivered late in each of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first two series.
He scored a game-high 39 points with 16 rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes to lead the Thunder to a 104-98 series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 on Thursday night inside the Staples Center.
Oklahoma City now moves on to face San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. It’s a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. The Thunder won that series in six before losing to Miami in the NBA Finals.
Much has happened since, most notably a fan favorite’s disappointing departure and a devastating knee injury to Russell Westbrook that derailed the Thunder’s run last year.
It’s been a long two years. But the Thunder is finally back.
Game 1 is Monday in San Antonio.
The Thunder showed incredible mental toughness to get back to the final four, first battling Memphis for seven hard-fought games in round one and then halting a high-powered Clippers team that appears to be on the verge of becoming a conference power.
OKC overcame a 16-point, first-half deficit in Thursday’s closeout game and an off shooting night by Russell Westbrook, who was the team’s hero in Game 5. Westbrook finished with a determined 19 points and 12 assists but made just 4 of 15 shots.
The Thunder’s bench, led by Steven Adams, chipped in beautifully and outscored the Clippers’ reserves, 35-17, to offset Westbrook’s early struggles.
But it was Durant who hurt the Clippers most.
He shook off a slow start that looked reminiscent of his shooting struggles in Game 5 and finished 12-for-23 from the floor, including a 5-for-8 clip from 3-point range. He made all 10 of his free throws.
Durant poured in 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the second half.
When the Thunder faced elimination in Game 6 against the Grizzlies, Durant also rose to the occasion and scored 36 points with 10 rebounds.
The Thunder needed every bit of it from Durant to hold off a resilient Clippers squad that showed no signs of a hangover from Game 5, when they blew a 13-point lead with four minutes remaining.
L.A. lit up the scoreboard early, making seven of their first 12 shots and assisting each other on all seven makes. They scored in transition, at the rim and from behind the 3-point line to jump to an 18-8 lead.
Westbrook and Durant, meanwhile, missed their first nine shots and combined for just one point in the first eight minutes of play. That lone point came on a technical foul shot by Durant 19 seconds into the game. Compounding the problem was two fouls on Westbrook, forcing him to sit with 4:10 left in the opening period.
Foul trouble became a major factor for the Thunder in the first half as six players, four starters, were whistled for at least two fouls.
Durant’s first field goal didn’t come until he swished a 15-foot pull-up with 3:01 remaining in the quarter. Despite the early adversity, it pulled the Thunder within 20-14.
But the Clippers ended the quarter on a 10-2 run to take a 30-16 lead into the second period.
In addition to OKC’s missed shots, turnovers told the story of the Thunder’s first quarter. OKC had six which led to eight Clippers points. L.A. gave it away just twice in the first period.
Five Clippers scored at least five points in the first period. Durant and Westbrook had a combined three on 1-for-11 shooting.
Durant, though, sparked a rally midway through the second period with three straight 3-pointers that pulled the Thunder within 41-36 with 4:37 left in the quarter. The Clippers responded with a 9-0 run to go back up 14, but OKC closed the half on a 6-0 run, cutting the deficit to eight at the break.
That’s when Durant decided everything would be easier if he just dominated the rest of the way.
When he came to that conclusion, the Clippers didn’t stand a chance.
After shooting 4-for-12 in the first half, Durant scored 14 points in the third quarter, going 5-for-5 from the field. The Thunder went 10-for-14. But in addition to Durant’s hot hand, a more determined defensive effort in the quarter helped OKC outscore L.A. 30-22.
Westbrook didn’t net his first field goal until converting a backdoor layup off a feed from Nick Collison with 3:48 remaining. Nonetheless, the Thunder trailed, 64-59, despite Westbrook’s uncharacteristic offensive struggles.
After a corner 3 by Collison improbably tied the score at 72-all heading into the fourth, the Thunder seized control in the final period. OKC had an 18-8 run to start the frame and went ahead by as many as 11 in the final three minutes.