If the Jazz players needed any more proof that their peskiness was having the desired effect, it came in Game 3 from Anthony, who scored 25 points but had to take a seat late in the third quarter when he drew his fifth foul, planting an elbow in Matthews's chest to free himself from the rookie's tight D. After the game, when he was asked what Matthews was doing defensively to give him trouble, Anthony took a long pause before answering, seemingly both amused and annoyed by the question. "I don't think I'm having trouble," he finally said.
When a player has to try that hard to appear unruffled, he's probably ruffled. "We talked about trying to get under their skin a little bit," Williams said. "When you're a little undermanned, you have to do what you can to compensate. We know that nobody thought we could win this series, but we don't care."
Back to Basics
On another day the result might have been different. It's the first quarter of Game 4 at the Ford Center, and Thunder forward Kevin Durant eyeballs the dwindling shot clock. In front of him is the Lakers' stopper, Ron Artest, who bumped and ground Durant into 36.5% shooting through the first three games. The sound of 18,342 Oklahomans roaring at dangerously high decibels reverberates in his ears. The instinct is to pull up. Suddenly hours of film process through his brain. He drives middle, right into Artest's chest, and unspools a jump shot, his arms extending over Artest's blond coif. Bucket. "He's always pressing me," says Durant. "I've had to find different ways to free myself up."
There isn't a hint of doubt in his voice. The shot was supposed to go in, just like Durant's team was supposed to be even with Los Angeles through four games after a 110--89 rout. While the series wasn't expected to be a typical mismatch between the 1 and 8 seeds, the rapid maturation of Oklahoma City, the NBA's youngest team, has made the playing field surprisingly level. "People put a lot of emphasis on the playoffs," says Durant. "But at the end of the day, it's just basketball."
Just basketball. It might as well be the Thunder's catchphrase. The others? Defense. Effort. Get better every day. That basic approach—at shootaround the morning of Game 4 coach Scott Brooks was running the same drills ("close-outs and digging out of the post," says forward Nick Collison) that he ran the first day of training camp—has helped temper the pressure of the playoffs. In Game 3, Oklahoma City trailed for three quarters as Durant couldn't find his range. So he crashed the glass (finishing with 19 rebounds) and used his 7'5" wingspan to blanket Kobe Bryant while point guard Russell Westbrook assaulted the rim; Durant's touch gradually returned. "He learned something," said Brooks after the 101--96 win. "His offense turned around because he did so many things that kept them guessing."
As the face of the franchise, Durant embodies its values. He goes so hard at shootarounds that Brooks occasionally has to sit him. His game-day schedule is scripted, from the morning breakfast (three waffles and an egg sandwich) to the afternoon video game with his older brother, Tony, to the 20 minutes he spends before chapel poring over the scouting report. For Durant, breaking routine has consequences: In November at Orlando, he forgot to read his scouting report, then missed five of his last six shots in a loss.
Brooks, the NBA's coach of the year, can't match jewelry with Phil Jackson, but he has matched wits with him. After getting pounded by 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in Games 1 and 2, Brooks devised a fronting D that denied entry passes and forced L.A. into 31 three-point tries in Game 3. At the other end, the Thunder has created an obstacle course for Artest to navigate. "They hit me with more screens than any team in the league," says Artest. "Give them credit; they set a lot of them, and they have guys who know how to do it."