<
>

Kevin Durant comes up clutch for Thunder after 'terrible' night

OKLAHOMA CITY -- With a ball tucked under his arm, Kevin Durant waited for the Oklahoma City Thunder's sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin to finish her question. It didn't matter what she was asking because Durant couldn't wait to say it.

"I was terrible," he said, looking away and shaking his head.

Durant had just hit two clutch jumpers to seal the Thunder's 98-95 victory over the Sacramento Kings. One jumper brought the Thunder within two with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining, and another put them ahead 96-95 with 23 seconds left.

But he had his ugly triple-double on his mind -- 20 points, 10 rebounds and ... 10 turnovers. He was out of sorts almost from tipoff, missing his first free throw and struggling to get into any rhythm. Late in the fourth quarter, he had taken only one more shot than he had turnovers. Walking back on the floor from a timeout with a few minutes left, he slammed his hand on the score table and yelled an expletive.

After trying to stick with it, trying to play on, trying to keep moving ahead, the frustration was finally boiling over.

"Nobody wants to turn the ball over," Durant said. "It's frustrating for myself, but I'm not one of those guys that's going to walk out of here with my head in my hands because I had 10 turnovers. It's not the first time I've had a lot of turnovers, so just gotta be better next game. That's all it is for me."

Durant, though, has been through these moments many a time, and like any great clutch-time player, he finds a way to put the misses and turnovers behind him just long enough to hit the shots that are most needed. It's one of Durant's greatest improvements, something he has mentally worked on for years, not letting the previous play affect the plays ahead.

"That's what your best player does," Russell Westbrook said. "He's not going to play perfect every night. But as you can see, he closed the game for us and did a good job defensively and finished the game for us."

Durant's clutch jumpers saved the Thunder from an otherwise disaster, blowing a 17-point lead to trail by seven with three minutes remaining. It wasn't that the Kings did something overly impressive to spark a comeback. The Thunder simply melted down entirely on their own, with Durant's uncharacteristic night crystallizing the off-kilter state of the team.

Against the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat this past week, Durant was brilliant in both games but missed key shots late as the Thunder lost tight games. On Sunday, he hit crucial shots despite playing one of the most forgettable games of his career. Such is basketball.

"Tonight I made it; last game, I missed," Durant said. "If I would've missed tonight, you guys would've said the same thing you said last game. That's just how the league is."

Had Durant missed on this night, the Thunder were headed for a dreadful loss, the kind that draws a spotlight, and not the positive kind. They would've been 11-9 with a second three-game skid. No Golden State Warriors' winning streak or Oklahoma Sooners' College Football Playoff berth could continue to cover for the wrong direction the team was heading in.

Instead, Durant, who in the 46½ previous minutes on Sunday was, well, terrible, snapped out of it just in time to stave off the negativity.

"That's what I've been dreaming about as a kid," Durant said of his two big shots. "You want that opportunity to take those shots. I've been trusted for [nine] years to take those shots.

"I've been trusted my whole career to take those shots. And I've failed plenty, plenty of times, and I've made shots, as well. I just try to stay focused and disciplined in what I do, and they went down for me."

This was one of those games where perspective can rest in the eye of the beholder. If the Thunder were, say, 14-5 coming in and riding a six-game winning streak, you might look at this one as a championship-level contender making the necessary plays to win a game they maybe shouldn't have. But because the Thunder were a scuffling 11-8 with tough questions being asked, it feels more like an escape, something that masks the underlying issues with the team.

"We stuck with it," Durant said. "We struggled, but that's the sign of a good team. You stick with it. We shouldn't have been in that position but we were, and we just kept fighting."

It's a bit dramatic to say a Dec. 6 win over the Kings could be a season-saver. But when the alternative was a loss, and a really bad one at that, maybe it was.