OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant comes to these moments cleansed of original basketball sin, burden free in the biggest moments. He doesn’t come to these fourth quarters chasing demons and ghosts and failures on an arduous climb to a championship. Everything moves so smoothly, so swiftly, those endless arms and legs unfolding in perfect symmetry. Fourth quarter, the ball comes to him and the best young scorer in basketball is still searching for the superstar to beat him. The stakes rise, defenses stiffen and, still, Durant unfurled the fabulous, full treatment on LeBron James and these Miami Heat.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant have come and gone in these playoffs, championships and MVPs left in the wake. So much has come so fast for Durant, but he's earned everything. Here he was, introducing himself to the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, and, once again, Durant delivered everything that the stage demanded of him, honoring the moment with downright destruction in the final minutes of the Thunder’s 105-94 victory over the Heat.
His town, his platform and, perhaps, his time.
Durant unleashed 17 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and it was the rare night when James had to listen to a serenade of “MVP … MVP … MVP” out of a home crowd, and wonder privately: Are they right?
The world has come to Oklahoma City for the Finals, discovering these cozy surroundings where Durant is slowly, surely developing into one of the most devastating offensive players the sport’s ever witnessed. James had his 30 points, but the fourth quarter belonged to Durant and these go-go Thunder. They started slowly, sluggishly, trailing by 13 points, but it was just a matter of time until Durant found his rhythm, his sweet spots and started to surgically dismantle the Heat.
The ball started moving, Durant and Russell Westbrook ran roughshod to the rim, and Miami could see Game 1 slip, slip, slipping away. These Thunder are the train forever coming in the distance, the end game when Durant, Westbrook and James Harden can come rumbling down the tracks with such unfailing ferocity.
When it was over, and the Heat were bent over, beaten and beleaguered to end this game, the Thunder staff privately wondered: Does Miami truly believe it can keep up with us going six deep on the roster? “The next game I’ll be able to go a little bit deeper,” Erik Spoelstra said. James Jones had a migraine, and he was lost for Game 1. There’s no mistaking the fact that lengthening the Heat's rotation will be essential to their survival in the series. As much as they wanted to run the Boston Celtics out of the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat have to measure their pace with Oklahoma City.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to stop this team’s fast-break,” Chris Bosh said.
The shots flicked off Durant's wrist in every possible way, awkward angles and driving layups and that sweet, straightaway stroke that feels like the most automatic shot in the sport now. James played a fine, fine game, but he’ll need more than hot hands out of Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers to become a champion. Together, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh missed 19 of 30 shots, and that’ll forever doom the Heat in these Finals.
Most of all, this was Durant’s night and a window into his deeper development as a true star. He wanted the assignment to defend James, and he did admirable work on him. “Kevin always wants to guard the best player,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s determined to play great defense.”
They’ll remember Durant with the ball in his hands in that fourth quarter, dumping a pass to Nick Collison for a dunk and then reaching out forever on the break for his own slam. Those arms and legs are endless, unfolding everywhere on the floor, rising for jump shots and needling between defenders from improbable angles. This promises to be a long series, greatness everywhere on the floor, and, yes, James will keep coming for Durant.
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There’s so much pressure on James, so much history, but everything is so much different for Durant, so much purer. He’s 23 years old, well before his time, and one of his great gifts is the ease with which he comes to these immense moments. Here Durant had come, stepping into the NBA Finals, and it was like he had been here his entire life. Give him the ball, the stage, the moment, and Kevin Durant was something to behold on Tuesday night. The stakes rise, the defenses stiffen and it doesn’t matter who’s standing between Durant and that championship trophy: Dirk, Kobe and now LeBron. All going down, all falling to Durant in these fourth quarters.
His town, his moment and, perhaps, his time now.
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