By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 28 2011 10:30AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night at Oklahoma City Arena, it was like New Year's Eve. Confetti fell from the ceiling. Kevin Durant kissed his mother and grandmother. People danced in the aisles.
But there were some on the Oklahoma City Thunder who reflected back to when it really was New Year's Eve. And it wasn't much of a party.
The Thunder entered Dec. 31, 2008, its first season in Oklahoma City, at 3-29. The team was on pace to break Philadelphia's 1972-73 NBA futility mark of 9-73.
"We were going to be the worst team ever, according to some of you guys,'' Durant, the Thunder forward then in his second season after moving with the team from Seattle, said while referring to the media.
If it sounds as if Durant was saying that in an I-told-you-so manner following his team's 100-97 series-clinching win over Denver, he wasn't. Even Durant admitted he's surprised the Thunder have come this far in such a short period.
"I didn't think so,'' Durant said. "When we were 3-29, I was like, 'Man, this is going to be a tough next few years.' But we always worked hard.''
It all paid off when the team won its first playoff series in Oklahoma City. The fourth-seeded Thunder, which last advanced to the second round as the Seattle SuperSonics in 2005, took care of the No. 5 Nuggets 4-1 in what had been expected to be a tight Western Conference opener.
The win typified how the Thunder often have to overcome odds. Trailing 91-82 with 3 ½ minutes remaining, the team pilot was on alert.
"We were almost on a flight back to Denver,'' said center Kendrick Perkins, whose Thunder next will play Memphis or San Antonio in the second round rather than a Game 6 Friday at the Pepsi Center. "But we stuck it out.''
Those on the Thunder can thank Durant. Of his game-high 41 points, 16 came in the fourth quarter and he scored his team's final nine points.
"He's hands down the best player in the league when he plays like that,'' said Nuggets guard J.R. Smith.
Durant, the NBA's scoring champion the past two seasons, was the guy who offered the Thunder hope even during the darkest times. The Thunder started 1-16 in their initial season in Oklahoma City.
Scott Brooks, then an assistant, took over as coach when the Thunder were 1-12, and eventually finished 23-59. Brooks then was named NBA Coach of the Year during last season's stunning improvement to 50-32.
"Kevin and Nick (Collison and Russell Westbrook, the holdovers from the start of the first season) have been here through a lot of tough times,'' Brooks said in reflecting how far his team has come. "But we knew that if we kept working, kept pounding the rock, things were going to get better.''
They did for the Thunder, who threw a scare into the Lakers before falling 4-2 in a first-round series last season. But many didn't expect the Thunder would show this much improvement in the playoffs after having gone 55-27 during the regular season.
"I was hoping they would have a sophomore jinx a little bit,'' said Nuggets coach George Karl. "But they didn't.''
Down the stretch, the young Thunder players regularly looked much wiser than their birth certificates might suggest. Oklahoma City won three times in the series by four or less points, including the Game 5 that had looked to be a lost cause.
But Durant got the fans going again when he drilled an off-balance three-pointer with 3:23 left to cut the deficit to 91-85. Soon, a three-pointer by guard James Harden tied the score 91-91 with 1:50 left and the Thunder took the lead for good at 98-97 on a pair of Durant free throws with 46.1 seconds remaining.
With 15.4 seconds left and the score still 98-97, the Thunder inbounded at halfcourt and Durant's shoe touched the midcourt stripe. It first was called a backcourt violation, but then overturned because officials ruled a player's momentum can carry him into the backcourt. Given another chance, Durant drilled a 19-foot jumper with 12 seconds left while the shot clock was running down for a 100-97 lead.
Durant then turned to defense. You'd have thought his name was Serge Ibaka when Durant blocked a potential game-tying three-pointer by Smith with nine seconds left. Ibaka, Oklahoma City's power forward, had nine blocks, one shy of the NBA playoff game record.
Victory was secured for the Thunder when Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo, who scored a team-high 15 points, missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. Durant then went to kiss his mother and grandmother as "Taking Care of Business'' blared out of the loudspeakers.
"They fed me the rock,'' Durant, who shot 6-of-9 in the fourth quarter and 14-of-27 for the night, said of his late-game scoring binge. "Fortunately, I made shots. It feels good.''
It didn't for the Nuggets.
Denver had closed the season with an 18-7 run after the blockbuster Feb. 22 trade of star forward Carmelo Anthony to New York. But the Nuggets couldn't do much against the Thunder, falling in two late regular-season games before being stymied in the playoffs.
Karl called Wednesday's loss "tough to swallow'' but said the Nuggets eventually will "wake up and realize we had one heck of a season.'' Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin still wasn't convinced the better team won.
"They're decent. They're good,'' Martin said of the Thunder. "But I don't think they're better than us.''
One thing is sure. Every team was better than Oklahoma City 2 ½ years ago. But the Thunder since has earned the right to party as if it were New Year's Eve.
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