LOS ANGELES – The mantle has passed. All doubt is removed. We saw it with our very eyes Saturday night at the Staples Center.
Kevin Durant is the NBA's King Closer. Kobe Bryant no longer is.
Durant is the new Ice Man, and we don't mean George Gervin, the thin man from yesteryear who so often is compared to Durant. This Ice Man delivers with the game on the line, and now he's got the Thunder one win away from the Western Conference Finals.
Durant swished a 25-foot 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds left to break a tie, and when Kobe clanged a deep 3-pointer with nine seconds to go, the Thunder secured the 103-100 win, took command of the series and ended all discussion on which player on Planet Earth you want taking a shot with the game on the line.
This was Durant's third game-winner in eight Thunder playoff games this season. The buzzer-beater against Dallas in Game 1. The running one-hander with 18.6 seconds left against the Lakers in Game 2. Now this majestic shot that sucked not only the air out of the Staples Center, but the idea that anyone besides the Durantula is Mister Clutch.
“How about the play of Kevin Durant late in games in the playoffs?” asked TNT's Steve Kerr. “I mean he has been ridiculous.”
And it's not like Durant didn't play a whale of a game the first 47 minutes and 46 seconds: 31 points, 13 rebounds, 11 fourth-quarter points and stellar defense on Kobe in the final four minutes.
And, oh by the way, a steal to set up the game-winner.
Call it the biggest victory to date in Oklahoma City's NBA history. Slaying the Lakers after they appeared ready to go back to OKC tied 2-2? Coming back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit?
“I wish I could sit up here and say how that happened,” said Scotty Brooks. “It just happened.”
Nothing just happens. It happened because Russell Westbrook played the game of his life, and Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins stood strong in the face of a Laker avalanche, and everyone in Thunder blue refused to give up or give in.
These guys are made of something special. Starting with No. 35.
The game started off frustrating for KD. His shot was falling, but his aggression was off. Durant kept missing drives to the basket, and the Thunder failed to dent the Laker lead.
But the Thunder chipped away, chipped away, and when Westbrook got hot – scoring on four straight possessions – it was anybody's game in crunch time.
Which more and more means it's Durant's game.
With the score tied at 98 in the final minute, the Lakers had the ball, but Pau Gasol brain-locked and threw a weak pass into the middle of the court. Durant was more than happy to spear it and head up court. For a minute, you thought he would go all the way to the basket and force the issue.
Instead, Durant pulled it out and dribbled down the clock.
It was a classic moment. Oklahoma's great hero guarded by Oklahoma's mortal enemy, Metta World Chaos.
“I knew (Chaos) was going to play off of me just a little bit,” Durant said. “Getting to the rim, I didn't want to chance that.” Not with Andrew Bynum standing there protecting the rim.
“I saw some air space and I was able to knock it down,” Durant said. “I wanted to run the shot clock down and get the last shot. I was just trying to look at the floor and try to get the best shot possible.
“I seen Artest back up just a hair. I shot it. I thought, ‘If this doesn't go in, it's going to be a terrible shot and they're going to criticize me a lot.'”
Not a chance of that. The criticism is over. Any big shot that needs to be taken, feel free to take it. The Closer King plays for Oklahoma City.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.