There was a not insignificant possibility that Sunday's Western Conference Semifinals Game 4 between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder would be Kevin Durant's last home game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. With the Spurs up 2-1 following a Game 3 win on Friday that seemed to confirm their crunch-time superiority, a second loss would put the Thunder into a rough, arguably devastating position against a team that has lost just two games in San Antonio all season. Facing elimination so soon would also have served as evidence that Durant's best future lies outside of Oklahoma City.
Those inclined to believe Durant will leave this summer will have to wait at least a few more days to make their arguments. The Thunder will live to play Game 6 at home on Thursday, and they'll do it in large part because of their superstar's prodigious talents.
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Durant matched his career playoff high with 41 points (29 in the second half) to lead OKC to a 111-97 victory that evens the series at 2-2 and puts added pressure on San Antonio to come through in Game 5. His aggressive play helped the Thunder prevail against a Spurs squad atypically dependent on isolation offense, a rarity that stood out even more in the face of impressive scoring balance from the hosts. Durant's big night tipped the balance of Game 4, but the Thunder's contributions from other sources may have been the most heartening aspect of their performance.
Before we get into that topic, though, it's worth spending some more time on Durant. His future has been a subject of speculation throughout this season, but such talk ramped up considerably after a narrow Game 3 loss in which co-star Russell Westbrook missed 21 of his 31 shot attempts with Durant only taking 18 total. Perhaps inspired by his secondary role in that one, Durant took it upon himself to look for shots and attack with the ball. Those qualities were not in great evidence in the first half, when he shot 4-of-12 from the field and appeared to settle for iffy jumpers on several possessions. But the second half was a different story, with KD going 10-of-13 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc against several defenders, including Kawhi Leonard.
Westbrook, on the other hand, was not exactly Durant's equal. While the point guard was the more aggressive Thunder star early, he became increasingly passive as the game went on and finished with 14 points on a poor 5-of-18 shooting. The results were not all bad — he finished with 15 assists — but this was another game that saw Durant and Westbrook unable to play at their peaks at the same time. Whatever the effect that dynamic has on the final score, it remains the case that the Thunder look a little below their ceiling even when Durant plays as well as he did on Sunday.
Yet OKC was able to survive Game 4 because several role players stepped up to contribute much more than they had earlier in the series. Steven Adams was an early help with 12 of his eventual 16 points in the first half, clearly winning the matchup against a very ineffective Tim Duncan — more on him later — and adding 12 rebounds. In crunch time, the unlikely game-changer was eternal whipping-boy Dion Waiters, who hit several big shots against pressure but rarely forced the action in finishing with 17 points (7-of-11 FG, 2-of-2 3FG) and three assists in 29 minutes.
Oddly, the normally balanced Spurs were the team that looked too dependent on isolation plays and one-on-one offensive brilliance. Although five reserves finished with an impressive 42 points on 15-of-29 from the field, San Antonio was noticeably dependent on three starters for the bulk of their offense.
That trio most definitely did not include Duncan and Danny Green, who combined for zero points on a mere three shots. Wait, sorry — the three shots were all from Green. Duncan picked up four fouls in the opening 16 minutes of the game and lasted a little more three minutes of the second half before sitting for good. He scored zero points for the first time in his 249-game postseason career and took no shot attempts for the first time in any off his 1,641 competitive NBA games. The greatest Spur ever looks less essential to the team's title aspirations with every passing day.
Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tony Parker seem as important as ever. Leonard's ascent to super-stardom has been a major story of this season, and he has willfully taken the ball in clutch situations to work on whatever defender the Thunder throw at him, often in a more demonstrative and outwardly confident manner than we typically associate with the one of the league's most media-averse talents. The results have often been spectacular, and Leonard had the single most incredible highlight of Game 4 when he grabbed an Andre Roberson pass anyone else would have merely deflected and found a streaking Patty Mills for an easy fast-break lay-up:
With Aldridge adding what seems like his new baseline of 20 points (8-of-18 FG), the Spurs got a big boost from Tony Parker, who put up 22 points on an efficient 10-of-16 shooting. Parker exploited the Thunder's decision to have Russell Westbrook go over the top of screens in pick-and-roll plays with brutal regularity, beating his more athletic counterpart to an extent most expected to see from Westbrook at the other end of the floor. The Spurs offense was therefore weirdly segmented in a way unlike its typical five-man brilliance — Leonard and Aldridge went to work on whatever defenders were thrown at them, Parker attacked Westbrook, and everyone else was mostly there to space the floor.
It looked like a sound plan for the majority of the game, and the Spurs led by six points in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for them, Leonard and Aldridge were quite ineffective, with the latter accounting for their one fourth-quarter point on a split pair of free throws with 2:39 on the clock. It was a reminder that the Spurs get terrific individual performances but rarely rely on them entirely. Their greatest strength is in the way they work together, not as the sum of five contributions.
The Thunder are both frustrating and impressive for the fact that they can win games when just a few players elevate their games to high levels. It seems somewhat irrational to expect them to figure out a way to get Durant and Westbrook to amplify each other in a perfect synthesis of five-man basketballular brilliance at this late juncture of the season. That's not necessarily a death sentence, though, because sometimes relying on 41 points from a generational talent is a better path to a win than any other.
The Thunder's greatest potential issue for Game 5 isn't that Durant and Westbrook won't figure out how to both score 35 efficiently in the same game, but that the Spurs likely won't look as disjointed as they did on Sunday. This was an odd performance for San Antonio, and not just because their offense was so dependent on isolation play. They also seemed somewhat unwilling to force the issue early when the Thunder looked tentative, and a number of key players were not just ineffective but almost irrelevant to the proceedings.
It would be a massive disappointment for either team to be slow to get into Game 5. If Game 4 carried added meaning in terms of Durant's future, then Tuesday's matchup will boast that importance plus a potential final home game for Duncan and a pivotal moment in arguably the best season in Spurs franchise history.
It's one of the biggest games of the season. Don't miss it.
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