With Grizz behind them, Thunder showing the future could be now
Kevin Durant's 39 points helped the Thunder beat the Grizzlies 105-90 in Game 7
Russell Westbrook blocked out the widespread criticism to turn in a triple-double
Long thought to be the team of the future, the Thunder could win it all this season
This game would not have defined Kevin Durant -- there are far too many more to be played for that. More playoff games, more series clinchers, more opportunities for the 22-year old to showcase his greatness. He didn't need this game like, say, LeBron James needed to beat Boston. But Durant wanted it just the same.
Big players make big plays, or so the saying goes. And in Oklahoma City's 105-90 win Sunday, Durant made a bunch of them. He had beaten himself up over the last 24 hours for his lack of aggressiveness in Game 6, for allowing two quick fouls to sink him into a woeful 3-for-14 shooting night. Whether he missed one shot, two shots or 10 shots in a row, Durant vowed, he would not stop shooting
"Attack the basket, try to get to the free-throw line, get in position to score," Durant said of his mindset. He accomplished all of that, and more. Durant scored 39 points (on 13-of-25 shooting), knocked down four of his nine three-point attempts and all nine of his free-throw attempts. He also pulled down nine rebounds, blocked three shots and handed out two assists.
"Durant," Zach Randolph said after the game, "is a special player."
Added Lionel Hollins, "He came back from a subpar game and showed the heart of a champion."
Indeed. Everyone knew Durant was gifted -- two All-Star appearances and back-to-back scoring titles are enough evidence of that -- but in the last year, Durant has proven he can be a killer. It began last summer, at the World Championship in Turkey, when Durant put USA Basketball on his slender shoulders and powered it to a gold medal. It continued against the Nuggets, who watched helplessly as Durant put 41 points on them in the series clincher. And it was punctuated -- for now -- by a Game 7 effort that won't soon be forgotten.
All the hard work, all the extra hours spent in the gym, all the off days Thunder coach Scott Brooks showed up at the practice facility to find the majority of his team there, it all paid dividends on Sunday. Oklahoma City stifled Memphis' offense (39.8 percent shooting, 33.3 percent from three-point range) and capitalized on every mistake. It scored 17 points off of the Grizzlies' 10 turnovers, a stat a weary Hollins would point out later. Durant's sublime performance was supplemented by Russell Westbrook's triple-double (14 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds), James Harden (17 points on 6-of-10 shooting) and a workmanlike effort from Nick Collison (eight points, 12 rebounds and a team-high plus-26 rating for the game).
No player has taken more of a public flogging this series then Westbrook, his every errant shot scrutinized, his every awkward interaction with Durant dissected. But Westbrook is a dangerous player when he makes facilitating his top objective. And in Game 7 Westbrook was locked in. He made a conscious effort to find Durant, hitting him on drive-and-kicks and seeking him out in transition. His game wasn't flawless (five turnovers and 4-of-12 shooting) but for one of the few times this series, his positive play was the story.
The Thunder will need Westbrook -- this Westbrook -- against Dallas. Jason Kidd has turned back the clock this postseason, averaging 10.2 points and 7.2 assists. But at 38, he is no longer equipped with the foot speed to handle a player like Westbrook, who has that rare blend of free-safety size and blurring speed.
They will need Durant, too, but then again, they always do. For all the attention paid to the demise of the Lakers, the rise of the Heat and the future of the Celtics, Durant and the Thunder are writing a pretty interesting story. They have been billed as the team of the future but that future, it seems, is now. They will have a tall task against the white-hot Mavericks but when they play like this, there is no team in the league they can't hang with.
Nothing will come easy against Dallas; if they thought controlling Randolph was tough, Dirk Nowitzki (23.5 points on 61.9 percent shooting against Oklahoma City in the regular season) isn't any easier. But there is a growing feeling inside the Thunder's locker room that this year could be the year. After Sunday, few can disagree with them.