OKLAHOMA CITY – The backpack is gone. No one seems to know where it went or why, only that Kevin Durant has stopped wearing it. A year ago, Durant brought his book bag to every news conference during the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff run. Both straps pulled tight around his shoulders, his long, lanky frame folded into the chair, Durant hunched over the microphone and answered questions as if he were a third-grader drilling flash cards with his language arts teacher.
Everyone wanted to know what Durant carried in the backpack. Charles Barkley teased him about it. Nike started stocking its shelves with similar bags. It made for a cute story, and maybe that's why Durant stopped wearing it.
This year, in these playoffs, Kevin Durant doesn't do cute.
This is the evolution of a star, and the San Antonio Spurs saw it up close Saturday night. They had clawed back against the Thunder and looked ready to steal Game 4 of these Western Conference finals just like they stole Game 1, narrowing OKC's lead to four with a little less than seven minutes left. The Thunder called timeout, and Durant emerged from the huddle with the calm, soulless look of an assassin calibrating his gun's scope.
Durant buried a fadeaway jump shot. Then he hit another and another. On and on, it went. The Thunder couldn't do much to slow the Spurs, but the Spurs couldn't do anything to stop Durant. He scored a staggering 16 straight points over the next five minutes, salting away a 109-103 victory that squared the series at two games each.
"He finished it off in fine fashion," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
And yet Durant's fourth-quarter flurry isn't what should worry the Spurs most. It's what he did during the first two quarters that gave everyone pause. Then Durant took what the Spurs gave him, attempting just four shots as he set up the Thunder's big men with dump-offs and kick-out passes. When Kendrick Perkins wasn't dunking over the Spurs' heads, Serge Ibaka was burying 18-footers over them. With Russell Westbrook also holstering his own shot for the greater good, the Thunder's offense settled into a smooth, easy flow. Everyone touched the ball, everyone found their rhythm.
Ibaka would go on to make all 11 of his shots, one shy of the NBA's 37-year-old playoff record for perfection, and he found his stroke in those first two quarters when Durant pulled all his teammates' strings. Durant's 36 points were magical, but so were his eight assists.
"It picks the whole team up," Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "It's easier for those of us who are less-talented scorers to play with confidence."
Trust your teammates instead of trusting only your talent. Durant has learned he and Westbrook don't always have to lift the Thunder by themselves. The more Durant maximizes his teammates, the more strength he has left at the end of games to carry the Thunder on his slender shoulders.
"I just want to be calm and composed and poised in those situations and make the right basketball play," Durant said. "There are times when I need to pass to my teammates and times when I need to score. … Sometimes it's nerve-wracking playing those games like that. But I just try to calm down and go with my instincts."
Durant's lesson in poise came from Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks a year ago. Down 2-1 to the Mavs in last season's West finals, the Thunder looked ready to even the series after building a 15-point lead with about five minutes left in Game 4. Durant threw in a 3-pointer, then celebrated by pantomiming as if he were fastening a championship belt around his waist like Aaron Rodgers at the Super Bowl. He looked silly and immature, and the Mavericks treated him as such. Durant wouldn't make another shot the rest of the game, missing all six of his attempts and committing two costly turnovers as the Thunder wasted their lead and lost in overtime.
It was an epic collapse, and the Thunder never recovered. The Mavericks closed out the series two days later.
"I feel like I let the city down," Durant said after the meltdown.
As painful as the experience was, it helped harden Durant. On Saturday, he was everything he wasn't a year ago. Patient. Poised. Sure of himself. He even looked like Nowitzki afterward. Leaning back in his chair, gripping the microphone in his hand, he answered questions with a veteran's perspective. It was easy to forget he's still just 23.
"I'm learning every single day," Durant said. "I'm not where I want to be, but I'm going to keep growing in those situations. I think those tough times are going to help me get better."
Durant's career has become a step-by-step progression toward greatness. Each year, he's corrected a flaw in his game, dismissed a layer of criticism. He was labeled a chucker his first season. When he proved he could score, he didn't win enough. When the Thunder began to win, he wasn't clutch enough. He won three straight scoring titles, but was he even the best player on his own team?
Durant has always detached himself from the criticism, instead sharpening his game through self-evaluation. He carries the same confidence all the game's greats do: Put in the work, and the improvement will come. Put in the repetition, and muscle memory will take over. A year ago, he was too content to float on the perimeter. He'd catch the ball and let his defender push him backward. Now he goes forward. The book on Durant has always been to play him physical, and yet there he was in Game 3, cracking Stephen Jackson with a hard offensive foul. The message: I'm not waiting for the refs to help me.
All those hours Durant's worked to shape his game with Thunder assistant Brian Keefe have shown themselves in these playoffs. He's played his best in the biggest moments: driving into the lane for that late game-winning shot in the opener against the Mavericks; coolly burying that 3-pointer to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4; holding off the Spurs on Saturday. Thunder coach Scott Brooks challenged Durant to become a better playmaker, and he's done that, too.
It's forever a delicate balance for the great scorers. After all these years, Bryant still gets ripped for being selfish and LeBron James gets ripped for not being selfish enough. Durant and Westbrook, too, are learning to pick their spots at Brooks' urging.
"Coach Brooks is in a tough situation where it's hard for him to impose his will on young, talented guys," Perkins said. "At this time in their careers, it's kind of hard for them to sacrifice when they're trying to reach so many individual goals."
That's why Saturday was such a watershed moment for these young Thunder. Westbrook was content to impact the game with his defense. Durant patiently set up his teammates. In the biggest game of their careers, they sacrificed.
For Durant, this is all part of his evolution, and that's what worries the Spurs, what worries every other team in the league. They've been in a race with the Thunder, everyone trying to chase down one more championship before Durant's game expands, before his basketball IQ matches his talent. Now they have reason to ask: Are they already too late?
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