Kevin Durant walked darn near to midcourt to high-five Serge Ibaka.
The hobbled and hurting big man gutted out a performance for the ages, and Durant wanted to be the first player to greet him as he exited the game. He knew who the star of the game was.
Yet on a night that Ibaka was the headliner, the Thunder wouldn’t have defeated the Spurs 106-97 and breathed life back into its playoff hopes without its superstars.
Durant and Westbrook admitted in the build up to Game 3 that they needed to be better than they’d been in the first two games of these Western Conference Finals. Much better. And they delivered.
“They knew that nobody has come back from a 3-0” deficit, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “They brought all the emotion.”
They brought that and then some.
Durant’s line: 25 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block, four turnovers.
The good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau came up with a pretty amazing stat regarding Durant. Sunday night was the 20th playoff game of his career with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. The only other players who had more games that fit in that category before turning 26 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (27) and Wilt Chamberlain (21).
Pretty heady company.
Westbrook’s line: 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals, one block, five turnovers.
There were a few maddening Bad Russ moments, particularly in the second quarter. A quick jumper in transition. A foul and a technical on the defensive end after he didn’t get a foul call that he thought he deserved on the offensive end.
But then, he scored the Thunder’s final 10 points of the first half, hit two threes from deep in the final 30 seconds and Bad Russ was a distant memory.
Westbrook was only a couple rebounds and assists short of another triple-double.
But for as vital as Durant and Westbrook were offensively, each liked what the other did defensively. Westbrook helped limit Tony Parker, who managed only nine points and four assists and wasn’t nearly as aggressive as games past. Durant spent most of the night guarding either Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, who were big-time contributors in the first two games of the series. Sunday night, they managed only 18 points combined.
“He was locked in on whoever he was guarding, and he was focused on that,” Westbrook said of Durant. “He stayed aggressive all night for us.”
Durant said: “I loved Russ’s intensity defensively and wreaking havoc with his athleticism and strength. He played with such poise and resiliency after struggling to shoot the basketball early.
“He hit some huge shots for us and attacked all night but made the right basketball play.”
Neither Westbrook nor Durant shot a great percentage from the floor — they actually mirrored each other with 8-for-19 performances — but both were in attack mode. They got to the free-throw line eight times each and knocked down every freebie that they shot.
When they are attacking, the Spurs are in trouble. Who does San Antonio have to stay in front of both of those guys for the entire game? Sure, the Spurs will get stops and force misses every now and then, but when Durant and Westbrook go to the hole, good things happen.
That has to continue moving forward.
But Sunday night was a stellar start. After going a combined 19 for 40 in Game 1, then struggling to score only 30 points between the two of them in Game 2, Durant and Westbrook knew that their team needed more.
“Just their ability to continue to lead us,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “What they do on the practice floor, in the locker room and huddles is growing day by day, year by year.
“They have to continue to empower and make their teammates better. That’s what the great ones do. I thought they did a great job of that tonight.”
Neither Durant nor Westbrook was the star of the game, but Ibaka’s return wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without them.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.