The moans that filled the Oklahoma City Arena midway through the first half Monday night might have marked the lowest moment in Kevin Durant's season-long shooting slump.
Standing all alone on the right wing, Durant caught a pass and fired a bomb that a sellout crowd of 18,203 just knew would splash through the net.
It barely drew iron.
For three and a half quarters against New Orleans, this was Durant's ruthless reality.
But with just less than six minutes remaining, the Oklahoma City Thunder's star saved a much-needed 95-89 home win over the Hornets. And he did it on the defensive end.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks assigned Durant to Hornets forward David West with 5:50 left to play. West had just spent the third quarter toying with the Thunder to the tune of 10 points on 5-for-8 shooting. He muscled his way through the bulkier Jeff Green, so there was no telling the type of damage West would inflict on Durant.
â€œI was even surprised,â€ Durant said of Brooks' switcheroo.
But Durant's defense changed the game.
With the Thunder trailing 81-77, Durant ignited a 14-0 run by hounding West into 2-for-8 shooting in the final period. One of West's buckets was a meaningless dunk with one second left on the game clock.
The Thunder took the lead for good at 83-81 on two Jeff Green free throws. But it was the string of defensive trips before that enabled the spurt. West started the streak by missing a baseline jumper. Durant then blocked West's next attempt and stayed close enough to contest and force a miss on the attempt after that. Russell Westbrook buried a pull-up jumper at the other end, and Durant then rejected an Emeka Okafor dunk before Westbrook tied it at 81-all on a pair of free throws.
â€œI just tried to put my hand up,â€ Durant said. â€œMy wingspan is one of the longest in the NBA, and I tried to use that to my advantage on the defensive end by getting blocks and steals.
â€œThis game is all about wins. And as a leader, you've got to do whatever it takes to win. I think that I did that tonight. That's a part of my growth as a player.â€ Durant finished with a game-high 26 points. But before his four free throws inside the final 33 seconds, Durant had netted just 22 points on 22 shots. One night earlier at Houston, Durant had scored just 18 points on 18 shots.
â€œThere's going to be nights like that,â€ Brooks said. â€œBut you have to find other ways to win. I thought the defense he played on West was a big part of our win.â€
Behind Durant's inspired defense, the Thunder overcame 5-for-15 shooting and five turnovers in the fourth quarter and outscored the Hornets 27-19 in the period.
â€œOur defense won the game tonight,â€ Brooks said. â€œIt created energy when our offense did not have much going.â€
No Thunder player needed a spark quite like Durant. In his past 10 games, Durant has made just 13 of 55 3-pointers (23.6 percent) and has reached the
30-point plateau only four times. But Brooks has gained confidence in Durant's defensive ability, recently calling Durant the team's best player on that end over the past few games.
â€œHe's a great defender when he puts his mind to it,â€ said Westbrook, who finished with 25 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and five steals. â€œHe did a good job of shutting (West) down toward the end of the game.â€