Posted Jun 13 2012 7:12AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Some 65 minutes before the biggest game of their young lives, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were the picture of cool. Their first appearance in The Finals? No sweat.
Westbrook leaned back in his chair in front of his locker, lobbing jokes across the room at injured backup point guard Eric Maynor, while Durant and others laughed and soaked up the moment.
Judging from the locker room mood before the game this could have been 65 minutes before the preseason opener. If they were nervous, even in the slightest, they hid it well. Because by the time this night was over, there was little doubt as to whose two All-Stars were the most dominant forces on the floor in Game 1 of this series.
Heat superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade entered the building with the biggest reputations and the highest profiles, but left thoroughly outplayed when it mattered most in the Thunder's 105-94 comeback win. The win was OKC's ninth straight on its home floor since the postseason began.
Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder's 23-year-old dynamic duo, were relentless with the game on the line. They combined to outscore the Heat 41-40 in the second half as the Thunder treated the Heat the same way they have every other team that's set foot on the Chesapeake Energy Arena floor.
They had plenty of help, getting quality performances from the role players like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka. But if Spurs' swingman Stephen Jackson makes "love to pressure," Durant and Westbrook wined and dined it, flew it to Paris for a candlelight dinner and had it back safe in bed before sunrise.
They passed an even bigger test on opening night of The Finals. They showed off an ability to deal with the magnitude of the moment in ways players in their third dip in the postseason waters should not be able to. The spotlight that melted plenty of stars before them (and will do the same to many more after them) didn't seem to bother the Thunder's young duo.
"I wish I could tell you," Durant said when asked why the Thunder stumbled early. "Just this being The Finals, we were kind of nervous. That's something we can't ... it can't happen next game or the rest of the series."
That 13-point lead the Heat enjoyed early wasn't any more secure than the early leads the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs enjoyed in the Thunder's previous three playoff series. They rallied from a double-digit deficit in the playoffs for the fourth time, once in each round. What looks commanding in the rearview mirror to the opposition looks like a temporary nuisance for the Thunder.
They went on one of their patented offensive runs starting in the third quarter. They scored on a preposterous 21 of their last 29 possessions in the game, never going more than one possession without a score.
Westbrook took the lead in the third, blowing past Heat defenders for finishes at the rim or pulling up for jumpers in the lane when he felt like it. Whatever defender that attempted to slow him down was helpless with the player Wade referred to Monday as the "most athletic player in the league" on the constant attack.
"The thing about Westbrook," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "is he'll just keep coming, so it doesn't matter, time, score of the game or what just happened in the play before. He's going to continue to be relentless."
Westbrook's 12-point barrage in the third quarter helped the Thunder to a 27-19 scoring edge in the quarter that set the stage for Durant's ridiculous fourth quarter run.
Durant scored 17 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth, 10 more than James. It was a performance reminiscent of the show he put on against the Spurs in the closeout game of the Western Conference finals.
Durant does whatever it takes to push his team ahead, mixing up his attack by stroking long-distance shots and attacking the rim. And it didn't matter who guarded him, either. He took turns torching the shorter Wade, the stronger James and whoever else switched on to him. He played both ends, too, serving as the primary defender on James, who shot 2-for-6 in the fourth quarter.
Durant requested the assignment and Thunder coach Scott Brooks wasn't about to deny him. Durant was able to play up to his usual lofty standards on one end of the floor while rising to challenge on the other.
With each outing, each win, the confidence level rises for this group.
"This level of basketball is the hardest we play," Durant said of The Finals atmosphere. "And we just want to take it slow, take it a possession at a time. And guys just have to continue to believe in themselves. If we do that as a group, we'll be all right."
They're going to maintain that same relaxed atmosphere in the locker room, the way they have seemingly forever. And that includes Westbrook playfully giving Maynor the business about the crowd of reporters that swarmed his locker before Game 1.
"Damn, you gonna play tonight Maynor?" Westbrook joked, knowing that Maynor's season ended in January after he suffered a knee injury that required surgery.
No offense to Maynor, but the Thunder didn't need him this time. Not with Durant and Westbrook playing this way, the role players doing their part and the collective confidence of this group at an all-time high.
"We've demonstrated for however long that we're just going to play the game until it's over," Fisher said. "We're not necessarily watching the scoreboard and assuming that we're up by so many or down by so many that the game is over. We've got a locker room full of guys that are extremely competitive, fearless and not afraid of the moment."
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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