OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sometime in the second quarter, out of a timeout, Kevin Durant looked over at his mom sitting courtside and yelled in her direction. Wanda Durant looked up and blew a kiss at him, probably assuming he was wishing her a happy Mother's Day.
Durant shook his head and gestured with his palms toward the floor.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were behind by double-digits, and Durant was struggling. In a Game 4 that carried a different kind of weight, the nervous energy was rolling into Chesapeake Energy Arena. It has been an unspoken truth in Oklahoma City for the past day and a half since the Thunder's Game 3 loss: This could be Durant's last home game in this arena.
Durant finished the half with 12 points but on only 4-of-12 shooting as the San Antonio Spurs shaded and bracketed his every move. The Thunder were down by eight, and now there were maybe just 24 minutes left in the Thunder's home season. The nervous energy had snowballed into debilitating anxiety.
It's an uncanny thing that the great ones like Durant have, the ability to shake loose from a seemingly off night and uncork one of his best games ever. He missed his first shot of the second half. A minute later, though, off some pindown action, he hit a finger roll over LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan. Finally, something to drop. Another layup. A 17-footer a few possessions later. Another jumper after that.
"I know that any moment, I can go off and hit a few shots," Durant said.
His third quarter: 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. But it was only a preamble to what he had in store for the fourth. Durant outscored the Spurs himself -- 17 to 16 -- hitting all six of his shots as the Thunder roared to a 111-97 win to even the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series 2-2. It was a 29-point second half for Durant on 10-of-13 shooting, and a total of 41 that tied his playoff career high.
Nervous energy turned to unhinged elation. Durant and the Thunder will play another game in Oklahoma City.
"Probably the loudest I've ever heard it," Durant said of the crowd.
Even at just 27 years old, Durant has library's worth of classic performances. He has 36 games of at least 30 points in the playoffs, second only to LeBron James (50) over the past seven seasons. He has six 40-point playoff games in that span, again second only to James (seven). He has hit game-winners. He has had fourth-quarter eruptions.
But Game 4 was a different kind of night for Durant. Considering the circumstances, the pressure, the noise, the anxiety -- it might have been his best yet. The Thunder as an organization were being backed into a corner, facing a harsh reality. A 3-1 hole to the Spurs surely would be too much to overcome. Game 4 was an effective must-win, the kind of cards-on-the-table game a season lives or dies by. And Durant breathed life back into it.
It wasn't just the offense, though. Durant's adversary, Kawhi Leonard, widely viewed as the best two-way player in the game, a deserved back-to-back honoree as the defensive player of the year, went scoreless in the fourth quarter. As usual, Durant was deferential, talking about team defense and the help he got. He did the same for his offense, noting great screens and, of course, Russell Westbrook, who out-assisted the Spurs himself, 15 to 12.
Westbrook himself had to bounce back from his 31 shots in Game 3, in which afterward he admitted to shooting too much. In Game 4, he took 18 shots and made just five, but he commandeered the Thunder offense, turning Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters into weapons.
"Russell was phenomenal at controlling the game," Durant said.
The contributions the Thunder got from their secondary pieces were crucial, and will be if they are to have a chance going forward. Waiters had 17 massive points. Adams went from one shot in Game 3 to scoring 16 on 6-of-8 in Game 4. The ever-divisive Kanter closed alongside Adams, finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes.
But it was Durant who had to take them home. He likes to say it's a "make-or-miss league," and on Sunday he made a lot of them. The Thunder adjusted, getting Durant on the move more in the second half, running him off pindown action in the middle of the floor. The Thunder have their issues, and as coach Billy Donovan noted, they aren't perfect. They are, though, always dangerous.
Now it's off to San Antonio, where the Thunder have to win at least once again, whether it's in Game 5 or Game 7. They've reduced the series to a best-of-three, with only one game left on their home court. That one, whether it's an elimination game for the Spurs or for them, will bring an all new set of anxiety, fear and nervous energy.
But for now, the Thunder live another day. Because as he has done so many times in the past eight years, Kevin Durant was the one saving it.