Kevin Durant scored 15 first-quarter points, made six of 11 shots and looked like he was headed for an historic night.
Historic? No. Heroic? Yes.
Durant dominated the final 200 seconds of a game that came perilously close to a huge upset, allowing the Thunder to survive the Rockets 105-102 Wednesday night and take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference playoff series.
This series got awfully interesting as the Rockets went all pesty with a small lineup that gave the Thunder fits. Interesting, too, was how the Thunder survived.
With a blocked shot not from Serge Ibaka, but from Durant.
With a post defensive stop not from Kendrick Perkins, but from Durant.
With three assists in the final 3:10, after the Rockets had taken a 95-91 lead, not from Russell Westbrook, but from Durant.
And with a dead-eye, go-ahead 28-foot shot, well, OK, that was from Durant with 2:28 left.
Such was Durant's impact in crunch time, that 3-point long ball, which put the Thunder ahead for good, was barely a post-game topic of conversation.
Durant's teammates talked about his passes. Durant's opponents talked about his blocked shot. Durant was partial to the block himself.
Ahead 95-93 after an Ibaka basket (off a nifty Durant pass into the paint), the Rockets' James Harden hurried the ball upcourt and hit Chandler Parsons with a pass that produced a layup.
But Durant swooped in, rejected the shot, kept it in bounds and set up Westbrook foul shots that forged a 95-95 tie.
“Hell of a block,” said Rocket coach Kevin McHale. “That would have been a big play.”
It was a big play. The other way. Durant called it his favorite play of the many he made in the last few minutes.
“He had a wide open layup, I just tried to do my best,” Durant said. “He's such a good finisher, I thought he would go up and under. But he put it in my face and I was able to get it. That got us going a little bit.”
I'll say. Durant nailed the go-ahead 3-pointer, then bodied up against 7-foot Rocket center Omer Asik, who had an easy shot near the basket that bounced off.
Finally, against a Houston zone defense that had flummoxed the Thunder down the stretch, Durant made passes to open teammates on successive possessions. First, Thabo Sefolosha nailed a 3-pointer to give the Thunder a 101-97 lead, then Ibaka drilled an 18-footer that made it 103-98.
“We changed up, made a little adjustment in their zone,” Scotty Brooks said of the final few possessions. “Had Kevin handle the ball up top. He's really improved his playmaking. He's not a selfish player. He enjoys passing the ball. His trust tonight was critical. They made key shots for him at the end.”
What a better way to play than the one-on-one mentality that too often creeps into not only the Thunder at crunch time, but any NBA superstar.
“He has been doing that all year,” Nick Collison said. “With his size, he has that ability and the attention that he draws, he is going to be in situations where he is going to need to make plays for other guys. He did it enough for us tonight that we were able to get a win tonight.”
A nice win, too. After the teams slogged through 2 1/2 quarters with neither leading by five points and the sides getting chippy, the Thunder finally took control, with an 11-point lead in the third quarter and then a 15-point lead in the fourth.
But back came the Rockets on a 16-0 run to take a 95-91 lead with 3:27 left.
Let this series get to 1-1, and Houston has all kinds of hope. Now, not so much, even though the Rockets scrapped.
Smallish point guard Patrick Beverley drew the ire of Westbrook by trying to steal the ball while Westbrook called timeout, causing a collision that turned Westbrook gimpy for a minute or two. Westbrook responded by playing alternately explosive and out of control.
Later, Perkins delivered an elbow to the gut of Harden, clearing space for an easy basket and leaving the Rocket star slumped over, out of breath.
The series is much more interesting than it looked after that Game 1 rout. But it seems surely headed for the same final result, thanks to the heroics of Durant.
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.