OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Thunder can thank Kevin Durant for their franchise's first series win since moving to Oklahoma. And Durant can thank Randy Moss.
All the stories Thursday will talk about the amazing shots by Kevin Durant in the last four minutes, and all of them will be absolutely true. His 41-point, zero-turnover performance included 14 points in the final 3:23, as the Oklahoma City Thunder stormed back from a nine-point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets, 100-97, and clinch the franchise's first series win since moving from Seattle.
But the story within the story is that Durant was able to catch the ball in the first place. At several different times this season, opponents have taken advantage of Durant's lack of strength to muscle him off the ball -- either preventing his catches entirely or forcing him so far out on the floor that he can't get a good look.
Wednesday night, on the game's most crucial possession, he turned the tables. After the officials overturned a backcourt violation call on Durant, the Thunder inbounded from midcourt with 14.8 seconds left and only five on the shot clock. Denver's Wilson Chandler was denying Durant on the far jump-ball circle.
"I made a Randy Moss cutback move," Durant said. "I didn't want him to get a hand on the basketball, maybe get at tip or run a few seconds off and then shoot a bad shot. I kind of faked him one way and then took off, used my football skills. Nene [Hilario] did a great job of contesting that shot and fortunately it went it."
Durant's 19-foot shot over Nene was the finishing touch on an amazing closing stretch, one that saved Oklahoma City's bacon on a night when the rest of the team couldn't find the basket with a GPS and a team of sherpas.
Not only did Durant score 41 points on 27 shots, he did it without a single turnover. Compare that to his teammates: They were 16-of-55 from the floor (29.1 percent) and had 14 turnovers.
Apologies for boring with you math, but the difference between Durant and his teammates on this night is startling once your break it down. The Thunder scored 59 points on the 84 "micro" possessions that weren't used by Durant, and 41 on the 32 he did use. That's 0.70 on the non-Durant plays and 1.28 on the Durant plays.
He saved his best for last. In addition to the 14 points, he got a key assist on James Harden's 3-pointer when the entire Denver defense was sucked in by Durant and a quick ball reversal and a well-designed screen led to an open, game-tying triple with 1:50 left.
"When Harden made that 3 to tie it," Denver coach George Karl said, "it took away our confidence from doubling a little bit."
Durant took advantage. Egged on by a rabid crowd at its ear-splitting best, he scored on the next four trips to send the Nuggets packing. He may never have gotten into such a zone, however, were it not for a key defensive sequence from Serge Ibaka. The Nuggets were up by nine and had the ball, and had two point-blank layup attempts rejected by Ibaka -- two of his nine blocked shots on the evening.
After the second rejection, Durant took a pass from James Harden, dribbled upcourt and nailed a triple. Denver still had a six-point lead, but the blowtorch had been lit.
"When we were down nine, I came down and shot a pull-up 3," Durant said. "My 3-ball wasn't working today [2-for-10] and I was a little off balance, but it went in. That might have pushed me over the top. And Nate Robinson and Royal Ivey were saying, 'Go take the game over, it is your time.'"
But the takeover couldn't happen without Durant catching the ball in the first place. At various times this season, we've seen teams prevent that from happening -- as recently as the end of Game 1, when Chandler's denials blew up several of Oklahoma City's plays in the final minutes.
"I give our coaches and Kevin a lot of credit," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We work on that. Kevin is getting stronger and playing with more force. Teams double-team him, we understand that, and that's part of being a great player: You're going to get double-teamed. But great players find a way to get open, and he did that."
"His set-ups were terrific, he set them up, took the screen, came off shoulder to shoulder and got the ball. That's what we worked on. I thought he grew up a lot in this series just in that area. That's something I'm proud of because it takes a lot of effort to do that every night, every game, every quarter, every possession. And that's how teams do it. [But] the stamina, the work ethic, the determination that he has pays off."
Despite Durant's explosion, the Nuggets still had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Durant stepped up one more time. He rejected J.R. Smith's step-back fadeaway out of bounds to thwart one effort. And when Arron Afflalo's shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim, a wild celebration ensued.
Afterward, Durant was effusive in praising his teammates. Certainly he got some help on defense from Ibaka, who erased countless defensive mistakes by his teammates, and from the frontcourt in general -- once again the Thunder enjoyed a huge rebound advantage, grabbing 16 offensive boards to just four for the Nuggets.
Basically, though, this one was all Durant. Oklahoma City used 10 players Wednesday night and nine of them were somewhere between mediocre and awful. They won anyway, solely because Durant was so outrageously good.
"He just made shots over and over," said a bewildered Chandler. "He made tough shots. He made open shots. He just made shots when he needed to."