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Kevin Durant powers Oklahoma City into the Western Conference Finals

LOS ANGELES — As Nick Collison's game-tying 3-pointer splashed through the rim at the end of the third quarter Thursday night, Kevin Durant could barely contain his excitement.

The Oklahoma City star shimmied to the bench nodding his head and bellowing as if he knew what was going to happen next.

What followed was an Oklahoma City knockout punch, exactly the sort of blow the Thunder needed to land to close out a game that probably would have slipped away earlier had Durant not atoned for a poor Game 5 and kept his team within striking distance. Durant scored 11 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter as the Thunder rallied to defeat the Clippers 104-98, winning their best-of-seven series 4-2 and advancing to meet San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals.

"I was disappointed in Game 5 how bad I was," Durant said. "I tried to be conscious of cutting hard and running everything with an extremely fast pace. Tonight my teammates did a great job screening for me and [Russell Westbrook] did a great job of setting me up."

If everything seemed to come easily to Durant during an MVP-winning regular season in which he averaged 32 points per game, his postseason has been more about overcoming a series of challenges. From the harassing defense of Memphis stopper Tony Allen in Round 1, to a newspaper headline in his local paper declaring him "Mr. Unreliable" as the Thunder faced elimination against the Grizzlies, to the mind games of volatile Matt Barnes in Round 2, Durant has persevered through all kinds of tests in leading his team to the Western Conference finals for the third time in four years.

Oklahoma City needed Durant at his best Thursday with Westbrook not scoring his first field goal until the third quarter and top big man Serge Ibaka limping off the floor with a left calf injury just after halftime. Coach Scott Brooks said after the game he was unsure whether Ibaka would be ready in time for the opening game of the Spurs series, which would put only more pressure on Durant to come through the way he did Thursday night.

"Kevin got hot in the second half," Brooks said. "Give Kevin credit. He did a good job of getting low, not letting them hold him, not letting them get away with that. He was trying to get separation from their hands. I thought he did a good job of that in the second half."

It certainly didn't appear as though Durant would regain his shooting stroke early in Thursday's game after he'd gone 6 of 22 in Oklahoma City's stunning come-from-behind victory two nights earlier. Durant could not shake free of Barnes and shot just 1 of 7 from the field in the first quarter, enabling the Clippers to build a 30-16 lead after one period.

The first glimmer of hope for Durant came midway through the second quarter when the Clippers blew a defensive rotation and he buried a wide-open 3-pointer. Seconds later, Durant struck again, faking a pass to Derek Fisher, sending J.J. Redick scrambling and knocking down another open three. Durant hit a third straight 3-pointer less than a minute later, a personal 9-0 run that he credited for both getting the Thunder back into contention and helping him emerge from a mini-funk.

"It was big," Durant said. "They messed up on their coverage on the 1-3 pick-and-roll and I was able to get free. Russell made some great passes. I stayed disciplined on my shot. It got me going. That was a big few minutes for me individually."

Durant stayed scorching hot from the perimeter the rest of the night, sinking 11 of 16 shots after the first quarter including a game-changing three that extended the Thunder's lead to seven midway through the fourth quarter. Durant swaggered down court after that one, arm raised in the air and eyes turned in the direction of pop star Rihanna seated courtside.

As critical as Durant's scoring surge was, he also contributed with his defense and rebounding, blocking a pair of shots, grabbing 16 defensive boards and drawing a key charge on bull-rushing Blake Griffin with Oklahoma City up seven late in the fourth quarter. The Thunder also benefited from Westbrook's 12 assists and from steady interior play from Collison and Steven Adams, both of whom played extended minutes in the absence of Ibaka.

"My minutes have been down in this series," Collison said. "It's been an adjustment for me. I just tried to stay locked in and tried to stay ready and remind myself that when I get in the game, I know what to do. A couple things went well for me, so that helped my confidence."

Oklahoma City will need defense and rebounding from the rookie Adams and the veteran Collison against San Antonio if Ibaka is not available to defend Tim Duncan and protect the rim. The Thunder will also need Westbrook to find ways to contribute when his shot isn't falling as he did Thursday night.

But if Oklahoma City is to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years and finally achieve its championship potential, the greatest burden will fall to the man crowned league MVP a few days ago.

Durant was special enough Thursday to help Oklahoma City close out a Clippers team he admitted he "lost some sleep at night preparing for" the past two weeks. He'll need to duplicate that level of play more often than not against San Antonio if the Thunder are to dethrone the Western Conference champion Spurs.

"We're excited to be moving on, but we're not satisfied," Durant said. "We're looking forward to another great challenge coming up soon."

In a postseason in which he has overcome every test so far, he wouldn't have it any other way.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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