Kevin Durant embracing closer role

OKLAHOMA CITY -- They are a couple of the most freakishly gifted, hard-to-guard scorers in NBA history, but they both had to figure out how to do their job in those moments when the stakes and pressure are maximized.

It took Dirk Nowitzki several years, the Dallas Mavericks superstar acknowledges, but he developed into one of the NBA's elite closers and has a 10-month-old Finals MVP trophy to prove it.

Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, a 23-year-old kid fresh off his third consecutive NBA scoring title, admits he's developing as a go-to guy with the game on the line.

Consider Durant's sky-high-degree-of-difficulty jumper with 1.5 ticks left in Saturday's classic Game 1 a quantum leap in that process.

Durant's off-the-dribble 15-footer gave the young Thunder a 99-98 victory over the Mavericks. Dallas defensive stopper Shawn Marion was all over him, sure that Durant didn't even see the rim, but the ball splashed through to deliver Oklahoma City a 1-0 series lead over the defending NBA champions, who dismissed the Thunder in a five-game West finals last season.

"It was a great shot," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "It was contested, but great players make tough shots. That's what he has to do."

That's what Durant has struggled to do throughout his otherwise-spectacular career. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Durant is 4-of-18 on potential go-ahead shots in the final five seconds over the past two years.

Nowitzki readily admits he didn't want the role early in his career, happy to stand in the corner as a floor-spacer while former teammates Michael Finley and Steve Nash took the shots that mattered most. It wasn't until Finley and Nash were gone that Nowitzki embraced the role, and that was because he basically had no choice.

Durant has never shied away from taking those big shots. He just settled for jacking up long jumpers far too often instead of attacking the defense.

"I'm still growing, I'm still growing," Durant said after scoring 25 points on a not-so-efficient 10-of-27 shooting Saturday. "I know that I'll take my bumps and bruises, but it's just a matter of me being confident to just go in there and do it.

"I've been learning ever since I've been in this league. I got thrown into the fire. In fourth quarters, my teammates expect me to make plays, and I just try to do it no matter how the night's gone before that. It takes a lot of misses for me to finally get it."

This shot, or more specifically, the moments leading up to the game winner, proves that Durant gets it.

The play was designed for Durant to come off a screen and get the ball on the baseline, ideally after a big man switched onto him. He couldn't get open initially, forcing him to catch the ball by the 3-point arc on the left wing. Durant dribbled across the floor before going into attack mode, crossing over Marion to get to one of his favorite spots and then pulling up by the free throw line.

Marion's "great defense," as "The Matrix" called it, didn't matter. Unlike the long 3-pointer Marion blocked to ensure overtime in the toughest loss in Oklahoma City history, Durant got this shot off and watched it go down.

"Durant made a great shot," said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose team lost here in December when Durant hit a 28-footer at the buzzer. "The only other thing we could have done was double-teamed and got the ball out of his hands. And we should have done that, obviously, so that's on me and I take responsibility for that."

Added Brooks, whose team fought back after trailing by seven with 3:23 remaining: "At that point in the game, they're going to crowd you, they're going to put you out of your comfort zone, but he did not stop. He showed some toughness."

Durant showed that the OKC kids are ready to rumble in crunch time against the Mavericks, who ruined the party-like atmosphere at the previous playoff game in Oklahoma by roaring back from a 15-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation en route to a Game 4 overtime win, a Dirk-dominated rally that was the most critical juncture of that series.

With Marion locking down Durant in that game last year, the Thunder managed to score only two points after Durant prematurely celebrated a 3-pointer that seemed like a dagger with 5:06 remaining by busting out an imaginary championship belt, a la Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

If Durant grows into a consistent closer, he probably won't have to pretend to be a champion much longer.