OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Thunder's 2014 regular season has been defined by two things: 1. prevalent injury issues, and 2. agonizing, excruciating close losses.
For virtually all of November, they were forced to cope without either of their supernova stars. And when they finally were whole again, they took another blow with Kevin Durant spraining an ankle and missing six more games.
In an unfair twist of cruel fate on Wednesday, with Durant back again, this time it was Russell Westbrook who was forced to check out right before halftime. Not because of an injury, though. He was hit with two technical fouls, the second of which came following an and-1 where he apparently taunted the Phoenix bench.
Durant has been there before. He's carried the Thunder without Westbrook in the past, finding a different level of cold-blood running through him to ice teams in critical moments. And on Wednesday, in a game that was supposed to be about him feeling his way back and re-finding his rhythm, he slipped back into the Slim Reaper persona, leading the Thunder to a 137-134 overtime win over the Suns.
"I think this is what everybody was waiting to see from Kevin," Reggie Jackson said. "He carried us in a lot of situations, making everyone's job easier."
In 39 minutes, Durant scored a season-high 44 points on 13-of-23 shooting, hitting six 3-pointers on 11 attempts, with 10 rebounds and seven assists, picking right up where he left off when he dropped 30 on the Warriors in a half.
But where Durant flourished most was in the area the Thunder have so desperately missed him. With stops coming few and far between against the high-powered Suns, halfcourt execution was at a premium. Coming in, the Thunder were 2-9 in games decided by two possessions or fewer, ranking 27th in offensive efficiency in clutch time. On Wednesday, the Thunder found an easy fix: No. 35.
"My teammates were running plays for me and getting me open shots," Durant said. "I just tried to finish for them. My shot felt good and my wind felt better than I thought."
Durant doesn't single-handedly solve the Thunder's crunch-time problems, but he does give them a good shot every time down. Because even his bad shots are good ones. Like the 3-pointer he hit late in the shot clock out of a broken play with six minutes left. Or the pull-up 3 he drilled with 1:23 left to tie the game at 126-126. It's not that the Thunder executed all that much better than before. It's just that they had one of the most ruthless closers on the court again.
Where Durant has matured and evolved, though, is in his playmaking. In overtime, he didn't make a shot, only hitting four free throws, but he created the biggest moment of the game, driving and kicking to an open Anthony Morrow in the corner who hit an and-1 3 with 1:54 left to put the Thunder up four.
"It was an easy play. I drove, they helped off, I kicked it. Simple. That's how basketball is played. If somebody's open, you kick it to them. I trust [Morrow], I trust Ish [Smith], I trust Reggie [Jackson], Serge [Ibaka], my whole team. If they make or miss, so what. You've got to make the right basketball play."
That kind of play is what's been missing from the Thunder the last few weeks. And don't misunderstand: That's not a subtweet of Russell Westbrook. It's more a product of how Durant leads the Thunder by example, focusing walking the walk and not just talking the talk with regard to trust. It's a difficult line that often blurs for stars, wanting to shoulder the burden of a possession to make a big shot, while also making the right play. Westbrook often veers in the wrong direction of that when Durant isn't there to properly mediate crunch time. Durant, though, has made a mental commitment to the right play, to believe in his guys, finding a balance between taking on the big moment himself without forcing. And part of the benefit of the suffering in November being for the Thunder was to develop the players around Durant and Westbrook, was to find stronger pieces for them to return to. Morrow is one of those, a player ready and willing for the moment to find him.
“He’s a big gamer,” Durant said of Morrow. “He likes taking those shots, he wants those shots and we believe in him. When it left his hand, I knew it was going down.”
Both Durant and Westbrook have been forced to cope without having the other this season, navigating through crunch-time moments without being able to lean on an All-Star teammate. Westbrook's ejection could've sent the Thunder in a tailspin in a game they badly needed, but Durant, as he tends to do, was ready to pick up the rope.
Westbrook only played 17 minutes, scoring 20 points with four rebounds and four assists, before being ejected for flexing and yelling in the direction of the Phoenix bench. Minutes before, he picked up a technical for a tussle with Alex Len after the two players both opted to hang on to a jump ball a little too long. Later, channeling a combination of Rasheed Wallace and Marshawn Lynch, Westbrook responded simply to every question asked of the altercation.
"It was a good win for us," he deadpanned over and over.
Westbrook was proving a point in avoiding the ejection conversation, but that tells the story. The Thunder have been forced into appreciating every win they can get, playing with a nightly sense of urgency. Wins are essential for the Thunder as they continue to crawl out of the dark place they found themselves in. They're back to within a game of .500 while picking up one game on the current eighth seed in the West. They've got all their pieces back in place as they can maybe put the adversity of 2014 finally behind them.