Sometime in the second quarter, outside of a timeout, Kevin Durant shouted in her direction and looked over at his mom sitting courtside. Wanda Durant looked up and blew a kiss at him, probably assuming he was wishing her a happy Mother’s Day.
His head shook and gestured with his palms toward the floor.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were behind by double digits, and Durant was fighting. In a Game 4 that carried a distinct type of weight, the nervous energy was rolling into Chesapeake Energy Arena. It has been an unspoken truth in Oklahoma City for the past day and a half since the Game 3 loss of the Thunder: This could be Durant’s last home game in this stadium.
The Thunder were down by eight, and now there were maybe only 24 minutes left in the Thunder’s home season. The anxious energy had snowballed into debilitating anxiety.
It’s an uncanny thing that the great ones like Durant have, the ability to shake loose from a seemingly off nighttime and uncork one of his best games ever. He missed his first shot of the second half. A minute after, though, off some pindown action, he hit a finger roll over LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan. Finally, something to lose. Another layup. A 17-footer a few properties after.
“I understand that any moment, I can go off and hit a couple of shots,” Durant said.
But it was only a preamble to what he had in store for the fourth. Durant outscored the Spurs himself — 17 to 16 — hitting all six of his shots as the Thunder roared to a 111 -97 triumph to even the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series 2-2. It was a 29-point second half for Durant on 10-of-13 shooting.
The Thunder and Durant will play another match in Oklahoma City.
“Likely the loudest I Have ever heard it,” Durant said of the crowd.
At just 27 years old, Durant has library’s worth of timeless performances. He has 36 matches of at least 30 points in the playoffs, second only to LeBron James (50) over the past seven seasons. He’s six 40-point playoff games in that span, again second only to James (seven). He’s hit game-winners. He has had fourth-quarter eruptions.
But Game 4 was a different sort of night for Durant. The stress, considering the circumstances, the pressure, the sound — it might have been his greatest yet. The Thunder as an organization were being backed into a corner, facing a harsh reality. A 3-1 hole to the Spurs certainly would be too much to beat. Game 4 was a powerful must-triumph, the type of cards-on-the-table game a season lives or dies by.
It wasn’t only the offense, however. Durant’s adversary, Kawhi Leonard, broadly viewed as the finest two-way player in the match, a deserved back to back honoree as the defensive player of the year, went scoreless in the fourth quarter. As usual, Durant was deferential, talking about the help and team defense he got. He did the same for his offense, noting great screens and, obviously, Russell Westbrook, who out-assisted the Spurs 15 to 12, himself.
Westbrook himself had to bounce back from his 31 shots in Game 3, in which later he admitted to shooting an excessive amount. In Game 4, he took 18 shots and made only five, but he commandeered the Thunder offense, turning Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters into weapons.
“Russell was extraordinary at commanding the match,” Durant said.
The contributions the Thunder got from their secondary pieces will be important if they are to have a chance going forward, and were vital. Waiters had 17 points that are massive. Adams went from one shot in Game 3 to scoring 16 on 6-of-8 in Game 4.
He likes to say it is a “make-or-miss league,” and on Sunday he made a lot of them. The Thunder adjusted, getting Durant on the move more in the second half, running him away pindown action in the middle of the flooring. The Thunder have their problems, and as coach Billy Donovan noted, they aren’t perfect. They’re, though, consistently dangerous.
Now it’s off to San Antonio, where the Thunder have to win at least once again, whether it is in Game 5 or 7. They have reduced the string to a best-of-three, with only one game left on their home court. That one, whether it’s an elimination match for them or for the Spurs, will bring an all new set of nervous energy, fear and anxiety.
But for now, the Thunder live another day. Kevin Durant was the one, because as he has done so many times in the previous eight years.