OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant walked into the locker room at halftime on Sunday with a new career-first. Not a good one, though. It was the fewest points he'd ever scored in a first half. Two points on two shots.
It's odd to think a game that went to overtime could turn on the opening possession of the second half, with some 28 minutes and 50 seconds to go, but the Thunder's 104-98 win probably did. The Thunder's first possession was a play for Durant, with Russell Westbrook doing the setting up for a 17-footer.
Durant has often said he needs to see only one go down before he feels like he's hot. Sunday's game provided some validation of that theory. A possession later, he went to the line to knock down two free throws. First-half scoring output surpassed, in 45 seconds. Then he hit a 3-pointer. Then another 3. Then two more free throws. Durant finished with 17 in the third quarter as the Thunder roared back with a 25-7 run in less than six minutes to open the quarter, wiping away a miserable opening half, hitting a reset button on the game.
"He wanted to get me going," Durant said of Westbrook. "Coming out of halftime, he told me he was going to get me some iso's, get me some plays and told me to be aggressive, and I just fed off his energy."
Durant finished with 29 of his 31 points in the second half, which included a game-tying dunk with 14 seconds left after the Thunder caught Derrick Favors on a switch. In overtime, Durant scored just two points on one shot, but it was of the daggerous variety, a jumper with 2:31 left to put the Thunder ahead by six. The Jazz called time out and Durant jogged to the opposite baseline, grabbing the front of his jersey and pulling it away from his chest.
Durant did the same thing on Friday to the Jazz, not just the daggering with a straightaway 3 with a minute left, but also the jersey-pull thing. His Godfather, Taras Brown, used to do that to him when Durant was 9 years old, as something to get him going, something to wake him up. Durant does it now as a reminder to shake off struggles. Something that says, "Keep it going. Take over."
"I was getting a little frustrated with myself and I just had to calm down," Durant said of his atypical first half. "I think halftime, I just told myself to calm down and, if I get the ball, try to score. Simple as that. Try to score."
That burst to begin the third quarter didn't put away the pesky Jazz, though. They came back on the Thunder, going back ahead by as many as nine in the fourth quarter. Durant had cooled, Westbrook was having trouble knocking down makeable looks and the switch that flipped to begin the third had slipped back to idle.
The Thunder had to manufacture this win, hanging in the game long enough on the defensive end for their clutch-time maestros to turn it back on. Durant had back-to-back buckets with three minutes to go to cut it to four, then found Steven Adams on a roll for a layup with 1:29 left to trim it to three, then skipped a beautiful cross-court pass to Serge Ibaka in the corner for a game-tying 3 with 49 seconds left. Westbrook scored four quick points in overtime, and Ibaka came up with two monstrous blocks as the Thunder held Utah to two points in the extra frame.
They were all critical, game-changing moments. But still maybe not as important as that Durant jumper with 11:47 left in the third quarter.
"Give him credit," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "He kept his composure the whole entire game. He was really positive in the locker room when we're down 13. Kevin wants to win and he came out and really responded. He got going right away."
The best teams have that insurance policy in their pocket, the proverbial switch to flip. But to reach the heights the Thunder want to get to, it's about sustaining a level of play as close to that switch is as possible. Still, there will always be off nights, when the best stuff isn't quite there. Same goes for players, even those in Durant's stratosphere.
But what makes the great ones really great is when it doesn't seem to matter, when a two-point first half can still turn into a 31-point game. When an apparent "worst ever" still somehow becomes a signature performance. Durant pulls on his jersey to remind himself of that.
Over the summer, Durant said he was at one point bothered by his perceived fall behind players such as Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis in the league's superstar pecking order, and to retake his place among the game's elite, he had to go earn it back.
"Sometimes you gotta remind people what you do," Durant said last season. "They tend to forget."
Sunday was a nice little pull on the jersey for everybody that had.