After a Paul Millsap layup drew the Atlanta Hawks even at 109 with 22 seconds remaining in a nip-and-tuck Monday night battle, the Oklahoma City Thunder inbounded the ball needing one more basket to clinch their eighth straight win. And when the Oklahoma City Thunder need a basket, there's only one place head coach Scott Brooks looks.
Sometimes Kendrick Perkins is covered, though, or tired, and in those instances, it's nice to have Kevin Durant as a backup plan who can produce moments like this:
Durant received the pass from point guard Reggie Jackson with just under seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. As soon as the ball touched Durant's hands, Atlanta forward Mike Scott raced up beyond the 3-point line, leaving Thabo Sefolosha alone in the corner to bring a double-team on Durant.
With the pressure coming from his left, Durant drove right against on-ball defender DeMarre Carroll. With Carroll on Durant's hip and Scott trailing the play, Kyle Korver left Derek Fisher alone in the other corner to put another body in front of KD. At the same time, Millsap jumped from under the rim out to the edge of the paint, aiming to build a wall that would keep Durant from getting all the way to the basket. Hawks point guard Shelvin Mack wasn't in Durant's vicinity as he tracked back to the basket in the event of a rebound, but his eyes were trained squarely on No. 35 — all five Hawks defenders were focused entirely on Durant.
No matter. Durant just rose up from 12 feet out, with two defenders with him in the air and waving hands in his face, and shot over them like they weren't even there. Like he was all by himself, like he hadn't already poured in 39 points in 43-plus minutes, like there wasn't anything else in the world but him, the ball and the net.
The ball didn't even touch rim. Of course it didn't. 111-109 Thunder, Hawks ball, 1.5 seconds left.
"I was going to pass it, then I saw I was in my spot and I just had to pull up," Durant said after the game, according to Daily Thunder's Royce Young.
Here was my high-level instant expert analysis of the event, which also doubles as my response to the beginning of that quote:
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) January 28, 2014
Atlanta's attempt to set up a final play answer went awry, and the Thunder — who had trailed by as many as 14 points in this game, were down double digits with 30 seconds left in the third quarter, and didn't hold a lead between the 10:39 mark of first and the 25-second mark of the fourth — came away with a 111-109 victory.
Brooks' team has won eight in a row, improved to 14-2 against Eastern Conference opponents, stands at 20-3 within the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena, and owns a Western Conference-leading 36-10 mark on the season. With all due respect to Brooks, and to the contributions of complementary pieces like Jackson (18 points, five assists, three rebounds) and Jeremy Lamb (14 points on 5 for 8 shooting off the OKC bench), they reached those lofty marks because Durant was, once again, completely ridiculous.
Forty-one points on 15 for 25 shooting for the league's leading scorer, with a 5 for 7 mark from 3-point range and a 6 for 8 evening at the charity stripe, and while the final numbers don't reflect it, he had to work hard for them against energetic and committed defense by Carroll. At this point, though, "energetic and committed defense," even when played by two, three or four members of the opposing team, seems at best incidental to the final result of a Durant offensive possession. Even defenders determined to be in his grill wind up serving as little more than scenery or set dressing in Durant's ever-increasing MVP highlight reel.
Durant has scored 30 or more points in 11 straight games, which is the longest such single-season streak since Tracy McGrady went 30-plus in 14 straight during his historically great 2002-03 season. He now has six 40-point games this season, including five in January alone and three in the last 10 days; no other player in the league has more than two (Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love). He's averaging 36.9 points per game in January, shooting 54 percent from the floor on 22.1 attempts per night, along with a 41.6 percent mark from downtown and 88.4 percent from the foul line on nearly 12 freebies per outing.
He might be upset to hear that he is taking more shots this month in the absence of injured star running buddy Russell Westbrook than he did in November or December, but he's doing a whole hell of a lot with them, while still pulling down just over six rebounds and dishing out six assists per game. He's been nigh on unstoppable for the better part of a month, and Monday night was no different, especially when Oklahoma City needed it most — Durant scored 13 points in the fourth quarter on Monday, including the Thunder's final seven, while assisting on seven more to account for 20 of OKC's 32 final-frame points. He also came up with a big help-side block on a Millsap try that would have given Atlanta a two-point lead with 1:43 remaining in the quarter.
After the late takeover, the final-play me-against-the-world make, and getting one last stop to seal it, Durant tried, as he so often does, to share the credit.
"Coach called some good plays for me — I've just got to do my job and finish it off," Durant said in a post-game interview with Fox Sports Oklahoma. "You know, Reggie did a great job making some big shots in that fourth. Fish. Serge. We fought back against a really good team."
Fair enough. Fisher did two big 3-pointers to chop down the Hawks' lead, and Jackson did score five points in 35 seconds to get OKC within a point of Atlanta with just over four minutes left. As to how much they — or Brooks, or anybody else — had to do with the closing stages, though, Jackson offered only this:
Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?
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