By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Apr 29 2012 2:26PM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- From the moment he set foot in the league Kevin Durant embraced the role of closer. He knew the expectation was that he would play franchise savior and carry all of the responsibility that comes with it.
So it's not a surprise to see the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar embrace the moment the way he did with seconds to play in a Game 1 win over the Dallas Mavericks here Saturday night. Nine seconds to play, ball in his hands, game on the line, Durant drives and pulls up for the shot and lets fly. It didn't matter that he'd done that 26 other times on this night, let fly, and made just nine shots.
The shot, the finish, the way Durant ran headfirst into that moment tells you all you need to know about what burns inside the Thunder's 23-year-old wunderkind.
But to get there, for the Thunder to rally from a seven-point deficit in the closing seconds of a game they trailed basically from the start until those final 1.5 seconds, tells you about the fabric of a team that is coming to grips with the fact that Durant and Russell Westbrook alone will not deliver the Thunder to the championship glory they so openly desire.
It's going to take more. It's going to take contributions from a supporting cast that is more than capable of assisting in that effort, when given the opportunity to do so. Durant isn't the only one that has grown into his role. The three-time scoring champ has to trust his supporting cast to get him to that final 1.5 seconds in order for him to put his cape on and knock down that pull-up jumper in the lane that sealed the 99-98 Game 1 win.
"It was a great shot," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "It was contested, but great players make tough shots. That's what he has to do."
Great players also have to recognize when to defer. And Durant's supporting cast -- Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and others -- is good enough to win games when he struggles shooting the ball, provided he plays exactly the way he did Saturday night. You want to Durant to embrace the closer role, his talent demands it. But if you're the Thunder, you need him to understand that there are nights when his team has to get him to closing time.
Durant has to have the resolve to do that, particularly against a Mavericks team that has figured out a way to make things hard on him and force him into uncomfortable positions in the past two years, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said it afterwards, "we're going to keep coming at these guys, trust me." His words might as well have been aimed directly at Durant. We're going to keep testing you to see if you can figure out ways to beat us even with us cutting you off at every path.
Durant grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked four shots in Game 1, making himself a factor in other ways with his scoring touch clearly not there with Shawn Marion and others in his chest from start to finish.
Westbrook was splendid, scoring 28 points on 23 shots. Harden came off the bench, shaking off whatever ill effects he felt from a concussion-causing elbow from Metta World Peace a week ago, to get 19 points, six boards and three assists. And Ibaka chimed in with a career-high 22 points, six rebounds and five blocks.
The Thunder failed miserably on this same stage a year ago, losing to the Mavericks in five games in the Western Conference finals when they could not find their way out of the maze Carlisle set up for them. They lost their cool and big leads in Games 4 and 5, when the Mavericks turned up the defensive pressure on both Durant and Westbrook and they had no counter punch.
Faced with the same pressure Saturday night, they found their way. The Mavericks were up by seven with three minutes to play. But Ibaka came up with two game-changing 3-point plays to give the Thunder a 97-96 lead with 54 seconds remaining. Ibaka scored both times on passes from Durant, who by then had realized that any possible comeback was going to come with him facilitating the process instead of just firing up shot after shot.
"I was just trying to make the right play," Durant said. "That's what it's all about in the playoffs. Playing together. We don't care who scores."
Durant will have to keep that in mind for the remainder of this series, because the Mavericks are the one team in the league that clearly has an understanding of how to bother him, as best you can a 6-foot-10 scoring machine who can work from all over the floor. Those five games they played in the conference finals last year were all decided by single digits. The four games they played during the regular season were tight ones, and Durant's buzzer-beating 3-pointer was the difference in a Dec. 29 Thunder win.
The Mavericks will continue to challenge Durant's resolve. Marion, who admitted he played great defense (and he did) on that final shot, won't be going away any time soon. Durant won't miss 17 shots every night either. He's going to shoot better than 1-for-6 from beyond the 3-point line sooner or later.
He's also going to continue to have the ball in his hands with games on the line for the Thunder, same as he always does. It's either him or Westbrook, with Harden stepping into the void on rare occasions.
He'll have to keep making the right plays, knowing when to feed Ibaka and others for the right shots while maintaining the carve-your-heart-out instinct the great closers have with the game on the line.
His counterpart on the other side, Dirk Nowitzki, mastered the art last year during the Mavericks' championship run after years of honing the craft.
Durant insists he's still a work in progress.
"I'm still growing, still growing," he said. "I know that I'll take my bumps and bruises, but it's just a matter of me being confident to just go in there and do it. I've been learning ever since I've been in this league. I got thrown into the fire. In fourth quarters, my teammates expect me to make plays, and I just try to do it no matter how the night's gone before that. It takes a lot of misses for me to finally get it."
Clearly, Durant already "gets it."
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