There were still 14.6 seconds remaining on the game clock when Kevin Durant made his way to the side of the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena where his entourage, if his mother Wanda Pratt and brother Tony qualify as such, was waiting for him.
Who else did you expect the Thunder’s 23-year-old wiz to embrace? This is who he is. This is what he does.
It’s why he makes sense to this city and these fans, this franchise and its master plan.
“I never want to take those moments for granted,” Durant would say later, “I know we’re just one step closer to our dreams, but it felt good.”
The Thunder are in The Finals, a few years ahead of schedule, because their best player embraced his role and the moment in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
An 18-point first half deficit on their home floor to the mighty Spurs might have worried some. But not Durant, who went about his business as he always does.
His expression didn’t change when the Spurs were carving the Thunder up early and seemingly running away with Game 6, taking with them any chance Durant and his crew had of putting the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable playoff series comebacks.
His glare was the same throughout the third quarter, when a furious 32-point Thunder rally closed the gap. He nailed a 3-pointer for their first lead, 79-77, that lasted only a couple of possessions.
His disposition was the same in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs finally appeared to show their age as the young Thunder were busy coming of age.
It wasn’t until the clock froze on 14.6 seconds, with James Harden at the free-throw line and the Thunder up by six, that Durant opened his eyes, exhaled and allowed himself to suck in the moment. The 18,000-plus fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena screamed their heads off as the Thunder rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit for a stunning 107-99 win, completing the latest step of Durant’s journey that began on Draft night, 2007.
At the end of the night, Durant’s stat line read 34 points (on 9-for-17 shooting), 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. His greatness was not on trial in this series. He took care of that question a while ago, last season even, when he led the Thunder to the conference finals in just his second playoff appearance.
What no one fully understood until late Wednesday night was the lengths the three-time (and counting) scoring champ was willing to go to push his team into the championship realm, where those dreams he spoke of can be realized.
“This is the toughest game we’ve played since I’ve been here,” Durant said. “I just tried to inspire my teammates with my play on both ends of the floor. And I’m just glad we got this one forOklahoma City.”
Youngsters (like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka) and championship veterans alike (like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher) followed Durant’s lead all the way to the finish.
The Thunder became just the third team in NBA history to rebound from a 2-0 deficit with four straight wins in the conference finals, joining the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 and the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in 1993.
They plowed through the West’s best to get there. First, they swept the defending-champion Mavericks in the first round. Then, they ousted the Kobe Bryant-fueled Lakers in five games in the conference semifinals. Finally, they toppled the Tony Parker-, Manu Ginobili-and Tim Duncan-led Spurs.
In eliminatingSan Antonio, they ended the Spurs’ 20-game win streak (which spanned from April 12-May 31) and brought theOklahoma Cityfranchise to The Finals for the first time since 1996, when the team was still inSeattle.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recognized the similarities shared by his four championship teams and what Thunder GM (and former Spurs executive) Sam Presti has built here in such a short time.
“As sad and disappointed as we are, you really have to think about it, it’s almost like aHollywoodscript for OKC in a sense,” Popovich continued. “They went through Dallas, last year’s NBA champion, and then they went through the Lakers and then they went through us. Those teams represent 10 of the last 13 NBA championships. And now they’re going to go to The Finals and play eitherBostonorMiamiand that will be 11 of the last 13 championships. I don’t know if anybody has ever had a run or gone through a playoff playing those kinds of teams, but it’s incredible. And I think it’s pretty cool for them.”
It didn’t even look like a possibility in the opening minutes of Game 6, when the Thunder seemed a bit shaken by the magnitude of the moment.
But Durant’s 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer, a crucial shot that cut the Spurs’ lead from 18 to 15, was just the beginning. The 24-minute masterpiece — Durant played all 48 minutes — was yet to come.
The Thunder climbed back into the game behind Durant’s do-it-all performance. He made all but three of his 15 free throws and among his five assists was his pass to Harden for a 3-point dagger with 3:13 remaining.
By the time he spread his long arms to bear hug his mother and brother, Durant had earned the right to express himself in whatever way he saw fit. Never mind that he would allow himself only a few minutes to truly enjoy it all before returning to the serious demeanor that has served him, and the Thunder, so well.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks used one word to describe Durant’s performance, the only word that captures what he did in the game and in his career thus far.
“Amazing,” Brooks said. “It’s an amazing moment for him to play like this in this moment, in this setting.”
We’ve struggled for years to find the right comparison for Durant, a humble and almost reluctant 23-year-old superstar whose connection to the franchise and comfort in the “small-market” city that claims him seems somewhat, in hindsight at least, predestined. We finally found that comparison Wednesday.
In 1999, a humble, 23-year-old Tim Duncan helped guide the Spurs to a championship in a lockout-shortened season, the first of the future Hall of Famer’s four titles with small-marketSan Antonio. Through the celebratory haze and the confetti falling on the court Wednesday night inOklahoma City, through the hugs and handshakes between the Thunder and Spurs, the torch officially was passed.
For Durant, it’s only the beginning.