1. Kevin Durant Carries The Load Without Russ
HOUSTON -- Kevin Durant taking it upon himself to bring the ball up the floor. Kevin Durant driving and kicking. Kevin Durant high-stepping around a pick just past halfcourt, slaloming in and around various defenders and getting all the way to the rim to dunk on Omer Asik's head.
Kevin Durant logging nearly 48 minutes of court time. Kevin Durant wearily missing 10 of the 14 shots he hoisted after halftime. Kevin Durant needing the kindest shooter's roll anyone could ever remember to finally escape the emotional roller-coaster of his playoff life by landing a dagger that somehow bounced three times on the iron before it dropped.
Those are the snapshots that will endure from the most meaningful game Durant has ever played without Russell Westbrook at his side.
Those ups and downs and the sight of Durant insisting to OKC's trusty PR man, Matt Tumbleson, that someone needed to move an extra chair onto the post-game podium so a young Thunder fan named David Gomez from McAllen, Texas, could join No. 35 at the dais and help him uphold the tag-team tradition of Durant's news conferences.
"He's sitting there for Russell," Durant said of his fresh-faced assistant on the dais.
After rolling up a 26-point lead with ridiculous ease with KD as QB -- and then blowing all of it -- Oklahoma City did manage to win one for Russell in the end. The Thunder hung on grimly for a 104-101 triumph over the Houston Rockets in Saturday night's Game 3 that was only secured by the unfathomably fortuitous trio of bounces on Durant's 3-pointer from the top of the arc in the final minute ... and a slew of crunch-time bad decisions by the inexperienced hosts.
"He just made a lucky shot," Rockets star James Harden said softly, knowing how much he, too, had helped bail out his old team.
Durant showed up Saturday night at the Toyota Center badly wanting to transmit to the rest of the basketball universe that the Thunder won't be just rolling over and waiting 'til next year in the wake of the lunchtime confirmation that Westbrook, after undergoing knee surgery, indeed won't be back this season. But the wild ride that ensued, with Harden uncharacteristically missing five free throws and committing two costly turnovers in the final two minutes after playing more than 40 minutes without one, left a different sort of impression.
Now everyone knows just how heavy Durant's load just got, how much he'll be asked to do just to lead Russ-less OKC back to the Western Conference finals.
Durant played the game's first 40 minutes without taking a blow, rested for all of 44 seconds of game time and had to amass 41 points, 14 boards and four assists to ensure that OKC didn't blow a lead of nearly three touchdowns against a size-challenged No. 8 seed that pulled in a whopping two rebounds as a team in the first quarter. Only three other active players have hit all those benchmarks in the same playoff game: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan.
Yet it wasn't the sort of milestone than anyone in visitors' camp seemed eager to celebrate, apart from maybe young David Gomez. The kid from McAllen who went from serving as a ball-boy for a night on the Thunder bench to Durant's sidekick on national TV -- with a signature KD backpack slung over his shoulders, no less -- came closer than anyone imagined to watching his heroes make Brooklyn's collapse hours earlier in Chicago seem tame.
Durant's miracle 3 after the Rockets had grabbed a 99-97 lead -- followed by two clutch free throws from Reggie Jackson to finish with a more-than-passable 14 points in 24 minutes in his first-ever playoff start -- spared the Thunder from suddenly finding themselves in an actual series before they even get to Round 2. They weren't supposed to be faced with this kind of peril until they hook up with either the Clippers or Grizzlies.
"There's no way around it," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's been an emotional 48 hours."
Brooks has to hope that was the trigger to the Thunder's unraveling, because Houston made it all the way back even with Harden still shooting below 40 percent from the field for the series and despite the fact that the 3-reliant Rockets bricked 25 of their 37 attempts from deep. The unexpected second-half defense and shooting from Francisco Garcia (18 points) and Carlos Delfino (three big fourth-quarter 3s), combined with Harden's considerable good side (30 points, eight boards and six assists), brought a hasty and humbling halt to any notions that there might actually be some small measure of upside for OKC to shed Westbrook's restless gene.
"The way it happened and how it happened," Thunder sage Derek Fisher said of Westbrook's torn meniscus, "we are definitely still grieving as a team."
Said forward Nick Collison: "Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court. So we're going to have to learn to play without him and learn to execute without him."
Westbrook's legions of critics will undoubtedly find it hard to co-sign on that claim. Execution, furthermore, certainly didn't look like an issue in the first half, when the game was coming so easy to Durant as he rung up a quick 27 points out of a noticeably more deliberate offense without Westbrook at the controls.
Yet as Durant explains, playing on without his little buddy for the first time since he was a rookie in Seattle is an even bigger shock to the Thunder's system than the sight of Harden and his famous beard in the other team's layup line.
Reason being: Westbrook's teammates thought he was indestructible.
The one guy, more than any other in the whole league, who just gets up and shakes off any and every injury.
"We all know he's human now," Durant said at Saturday's shootaround. "It's tough to deal with. But like I said, nobody's feeling sorry for us."
In the morning, Durant spoke of how "different" it was "not having his voice here." At night's end, with Gomez at his side instead of Westbrook wearing something crazy, Durant acknowledged that his job "didn't feel the same" no matter how locked in he looked early.
He went on to reveal that he got "love" texts from Westbrook at halftime and again when it was over, prompting Durant to tell the assembled media: "Every game is for him."
With no apologies tacked on for the lucky bounces -- plural -- that came after the first really bad injury break of the Durant Era.
"The Lord was with us ... that's all I was thinking," Durant said of his modern-day spin on Don Nelson's unforgettable jumper that beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals.
"I really can't say too much else about that one."
It's probably wisest to save his energy anyway. Multi-tasking more than he ever has before, Durant's going to need every last drop of it.
2. Around The Association
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant stepped up with Russell Westbrook out. Playing all but 44 seconds, Durant matched a playoff career-high with 41 points and added 14 rebounds and four assists.
Defining moment: After the Rockets erased Oklahoma City's 26-point lead, Durant made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 41 seconds left. The ball bounced on the rim three times, the first above the backboard, before dropping -- three clanks that could have gone differently in an tight game.
X factors: Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher. Jackson, making his first career start in Westbrook's absence, scored 14 points on six shots. The Thunder played even better with Fisher, who had no turnovers and stayed out of Durant's way in his 24 minutes.
MVP: Nate Robinson, who responded to a retaliation screen from Gerald Wallace by scoring 23 points in the fourth, nearly breaking a franchise record set by MJ (!). He got the Bulls back into the game, the one his agent will refer to while negotiating him a new contract in the offseason.
X factor: Nazr Mohammed sprung off the bench after Joakim Noah fouled out, scoring four points in the third overtime period, including the dagger putback off a missed free throw. So, yes, the Nets sort of got beat by Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed.
That was ... heart-pounding: Poor Brooklyn -- it blew a double-digit lead and wore out by three overtimes' end, losing a crucial Game 4 to take a 3-1 series deficit before heading back east. The Bulls now have three chances to close this one out.
MVP: Marc Gasol. Rare is the big man who eats space and creates it. Gasol lived up to his Defensive Player of the Year moniker by protecting the rim on one end and using his gorgeous jumper and interior passing on the other to completely flummox the Clippers.
X factor: 3-point shooting. If the Clippers are making the same amount of 3-pointers as the Grizzlies, something has gone horribly wrong. The Clippers had decent looks but shot just 4-for-21 from behind the arc and got essentially no scoring production from their wings.
Well, that was ... persistence personified. The Grizzlies have found something with Zach Randolph on the block, and the Clippers have failed to take it away. The starting frontcourt of the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 63-21 in a truly dominant performance.
MVP: Al Horford. He was a monster. His line speaks for itself, but it was more than that. His ferocity and refusal to be denied was contagious. The whole Hawks team adopted a mentality that he personified.
LVP(s): Indiana's backcourt. George Hill and Lance Stephenson combined for seven points on 2-for-15 shooting. Revolting stuff. Teams don't win when that happens.
X factor: Josh Smith took six of his first nine shots within five feet of the hoop. He attacked Paul George in the post and got out in transition. This is a different team when he is imposing his will in the paint.
3. Saturday's Best
Nate Robinson, Bulls:
Looks like N8 got bit by the radioactive spider again. His superhero act saw him score all but five of his 34 points after the third quarter as he carried Chicago from a 14-point deficit late in regulation and beat the Brooklyn Nets 142-134 in triple overtime.
4. Saturday's Worst
Shooting by Pacers guards:
Five backcourt players for Indy combined to shoot 2-for-20 in the loss to the Hawks. That helped the team shoot a clank-worthy 27.2 percent in the 90-69 Game 3 rout.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote of the Night
"I always think I'm on fire. Like the old school game, 'NBA Jam,' you make a couple and the rim's on fire and when you shoot the ball, the ball's on fire. I feel like that at times. Well, all the time. When I'm in the game, I play with a lot of confidence and you kind of got to lie to yourself that you can't miss."
-- Bulls guard Nate Robinson, on his sizzling run that helped deliver a 3-1 series lead over the Nets.
8. Unstoppable And Irrepressible
9. Stat Check
All five starters for both the Nets and Bulls scored at least 15 points in Chicago's triple-overtime win. And that doesn't even include Nate Robinson, who led all scorers with 34 off the bench. The last NBA playoff game in which all 10 starters scored 15-plus points was Game 4 of a second-round series between the Celtics and Bucks in 1987. Boston's starting five consisted of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, while Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey, Jack Sikma, Sidney Moncrief and John Lucas started for Milwaukee. The Celtics won, 138-137, in two overtime periods at Milwaukee Arena.
10. Dunk Of The Night