OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant casually walked to the scorer's table to check back into the game. Sitting together on the padded blue table top, they called out defensive coverages, clapping in unison and simultaneously yelled, "Pull!" when Anthony Morrow caught the ball half-open on the wing.
They waited for a whistle to blow, for their chance to come back in and start re-wrecking the Brooklyn Nets. It finally happened with 8:08 remaining. As they tossed aside their warmups, the Oklahoma City Thunder's second unit had released a seven-point lead, and the score was tied 85-85. Within two minutes of Durant and Westbrook returning, it was 96-85, and the Thunder set it to cruise control for a 110-99 win over the Nets.
In his second game back from a hamstring injury, Durant lit the Nets for 30 on 11-of-18 shooting, plus six rebounds and five assists. It was vintage Durant, a "quiet" 30 that was done methodically with pinpoint precision. The Nets threw young defender Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on Durant from tipoff, trying to let the rookie use some of his tenacious energy to make it difficult on the Thunder's scoring savant. Durant just saw an opportunity.
"I seen fresh meat and I was ready to eat. And I was hungry," Durant said. "He's a really, really active defender though, I really like him. Long, athletic. But I seen something in his eyes that I could exploit."
Durant was the main catalyst for the game-changing run in the fourth, knocking down a go-ahead 3-pointer almost instantly after returning. He then set up Dion Waiters for a 3 in the corner, then made another himself on a drop-off from Westbrook. It was nine points in an instant, almost as fast as Westbrook can go end-to-end.
"He makes it look easy," Westbrook said. "Obviously he makes everything he does look very easy. But he works hard and he's obviously put himself in the position to come back and still be the player he is."
The Thunder scored 25 points in the final eight minutes, doing it behind an electric small-ball unit featuring Westbrook, Durant, Waiters, Anthony Morrow and Serge Ibaka. That's a lineup coach Billy Donovan worked on at shootaround Wednesday in anticipation of some of the Nets' small-ball groupings, but it's also one that, with its versatility and dynamic options, made the Thunder almost impossible to guard.
"When you have such explosive offensive players as Kevin and Russell," Donovan said, "[...] the one thing I think the both of them are doing, they're making the game easier for other guys around them, and they're getting those guys shots."
The Thunder have had some early ups and downs in the Donovan era, struggling to a 7-6 start that bottomed out with an unseemly home loss to the Knicks last Friday. But they've bounced back to win three straight, with Durant of course playing the last two. It's not exactly groundbreaking analysis to note he makes the Thunder better, but it's really how he does it. It's the game-altering possessions he creates with such little effort, simply walking into a 3 over an outstretched hand, or popping a step-back jumper without the Thunder having to run anything. Possessions, especially those late in games, can be dicey for the Thunder without Durant. With him, they can rip off 11 points in a blink and do it while barely breaking a sweat.
It also helped that the Thunder's offense is beginning to generate the kind of looks Donovan's refinement creates. With more action, improved spacing and better positioning, the Thunder worked possessions that ended in wide open corner 3s, then exploited other gaps in the Nets' defense as they overcompensated with hard rolls to the basket by Ibaka.
It's still early, and there's still a long way to go, but those are the subtle tweaks the Thunder are after, trying to change how they score, not just trying to do more of it.
The kind of possessions late against the Nets -- and it's important to remember it was against the Nets -- aren't the kind the Thunder historically have generated. There was no Durant standing at the free throw line extended, out of ideas of how to get the ball. There was no mid-pick-and-roll as a last-ditch option with eight seconds on the shot clock. There was more of a purpose, more of a plan, and more of a precision that often has been missing in the past.
And it's probably no coincidence it all worked pretty well with No. 35 and No. 0 back on the floor together.