'Anxious' Kevin Durant puts struggles behind him to dominate Game 3

DALLAS -- With Charlie Villanueva just a few feet away, Russell Westbrook started dancing again.

This time, though, it was with the ball in his hand. It was late in the fourth quarter and Westbrook dribbled hard, then jammed a stutter-step to rock Villanueva on his heels before rising to splash a 15-footer, putting the Oklahoma City Thunder up by 28.

In Game 3 against the Dallas Mavericks, there was no drama, either before the game or within it as the Thunder stomped the Mavs 131-102 to go up 2-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series. With talk of the Mavs forming a mosh pit to combat the Thunder's pregame dance troupe, they stood down as Westbrook and Cameron Payne went through their routine, this time flanked by Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary and even the Thunder's head security guy, nicknamed "Flash."

After the Mavs improbably evened the series by stealing Game 2 in Oklahoma City, a game that featured Kevin Durant shooting a stunning 7-of-33 from the floor, there was a building anxiety around the Thunder that Dallas may have them rattled. The pregame antics of Villanueva were the beginning of it, but in Game 2 the Mavs clearly frustrated the Thunder with their physicality and "gamesmanship," as OKC coach Billy Donovan called it, and it resulted in a one-point win.

The Thunder had two days off to digest it all, to hear about the dancing controversy, to think about Steven Adams' near game-winner, to stew over the barrage of bricks that plagued them in the fourth quarter. Mostly, it was Durant who had to dwell on it all, answering questions about his spirit, about his emotional well-being, about where his head was after the worst shooting game of his career. The two days felt like a year to Durant, who admitted to being anxious, but there was never any panic.

"I was thinking about this earlier," he said, "I know how fighters feel when they lose a fight and they've got the rematch coming, but it's a year later. That's how it felt for me."

Durant's first shot was a miss, but seven of his next eight were pure. He scored 20 in the first half, on 7-of-9 shooting, rediscovering his razor-sharp jumper and confidently stepping into any half-open look. It was part of a 34-point night for Durant, a return to the norm for the game's most gifted scorer.

"He didn't overreact," Nick Collison said. "He's confident in what he does. And the rest of the team, of course we have a ton of faith in him and I think we just didn't overreact. We looked at the film and we didn't buy into the narrative that we lost because he missed a lot of shots. There were other things we did that we can do better."

Collison has been with Durant longer than anybody, watching a lanky 18-year-old blossom into the league's MVP. And in that Game 2, maybe the most forgettable of Durant's career, Collison walked away impressed. Which is a weird thing to say about a guy who missed 26 shots.

"Even within that game, he continued to compete on both ends," he said. "There are times where he would've let that affect him in the past, for sure. He's a lot more mature, he's shown a lot more maturity and it's great for us. When he's engaged on the defensive end, we're so much better."

That's the tone Durant is intent on setting for his team. A quiet assurance that process trumps results, that an immediate setback doesn't stop the eventual triumph.

"When I go out there and play well, I don't throw a party for myself afterward," Durant said. "When I play terrible, I'm not going to change anything up, I'm not going to feel sorry for myself. I'm going to go out there and do the same thing I've been doing. It's a marathon, not a sprint."

In Game 3, the Thunder shot 57.7 percent from the floor, as Westbrook racked up 15 assists, when in Game 2 the entire team produced 11. Donovan said there was an emphasis on spacing the floor for his stars, and making sure the ball got to open players. The Thunder offense flowed through better ball movement in Game 3, with Westbrook focusing on creating opportunities. Durant was a beneficiary of that, but in the same way there wasn't a knee-jerk to the lows of Game 2, the Thunder are reluctant to ride a high after Game 3. Especially Durant.

"Just made shots," he said. "Nothing more than that."

Come on, though. There has to be something more to it than that. Was there some kind of adjustment, some offensive alteration that freed the offense to jump from 84 points to 131?

Durant looked at Westbrook. Westbrook shrugged.

"Just making shots, man," Westbrook said with a laugh. "Simple as that."

Sometimes, it really is.