What do you do when the word is your tool and yet the tool feels inadequate for the job? My goal in writing these recaps is to try and paint a picture in your mind not just how a team won, but why. Ordinarily, you can isolate it to a key stop or a made basket, but on occasion there are games like these where I struggle to find adequate context.
On the one hand, I don't want to resort to hackneyed hyperbole that leaves the reader's eyes rolling. "Persians! Come and get them!" Is probably a bit much.
On the other hand though, I cannot understate that the experience is real. The emotions are real. The fear, anxiety, excitement, and jubilation is real. You could see it in the faces of the players and the OKC crowd; the emotions were as real as anything we experience.
Make no mistake, the Nuggets were primed for a win. They were playing beautiful offensive basketball, the kind that shredded every other elite team in the league in the final two months of play. They were set to make this a series, to take it back to Denver and force the Thunder to reconsider their rightful place in the NBA pecking order. In a word, they were about to crush OKC. However, big moments do not become Big Moments unless such odds are stacked against.
In a way, Kevin Durant's Big Moment started in Game Four. He was the opposite side of the Russell Westbrook coin, where we clamored for Westbrook to give the ball to Durant. Durant was keeping the team close in a game in which they did not deserve to be close. Durant needed this game, and this moment, to validate to others and himself what it means to be a leader.
"I wanted to breathe smoke." - Fight Club
Durant was about to destroy something pretty, and that something pretty was the Denver Nuggets' season.
In a final four minute sequence that feels like it should be all about the individual, I do believe that because of the way the Thunder have been built, it was quite the opposite. A nine point deficit might as well have been 50 with the way the Thunder were playing. Looking at the players on the Thunder bench, you could see two things on their faces - the feeling of defeat, and the dread of having to go back to Denver. When things looked to be the most bleak, the team, led by Durant, made the game small and they made it about trust. The players had to trust each other that, even though the first 44 minutes of the game were mediocre at best, that they had something within them that could pull this game out. Instead of seeing a big deficit, they made the game about singular moments that they had to win.
"This is what you do." - Westbrook to Durant
Not many teams can boast that they have a magic bullet. The Thunder can. Kevin Durant is a supremely talented and confident, if humble, superstar. He has the ability to give his team hope when no hope seems to exist. That sense of security is a rare, rare thing. Durant's teammates essentially said, "We'll do our part, but we trust you to get this done."
"And I just said 'all right.' And I just kept going." - Durant to Westbrook
As with most things about the Thunder these days, it started with defense. Serge Ibaka came up with a huge block on an attempted Nene put-back, sending the ball into the hands of James Harden.
"I trust you Air Congo. I know you got our back on that one."
James harden kicked it forward to Durant, who looked like he knew that if something was going to alter the course of this game, he had to make it start to happen right now.
Pull-up three, splash. Five point deficit.
James Harden, once again quiet for most of the game, was ready to have his moment.
"James, they're guarding me tight, and we need to tie this game. I'm gonna find you, and I trust that you're gonna knock this 3-ball down."
Corner three from Harden, splash. Tie game.
"You guys are doing great. Now, trust me here, I will give us the lead."
Durant slashes into the lane, rises above three defenders, and hits the jumper along with the foul for an and-1.
"Serge, I know you've done a lot for us, but we need you one more time. We trust that you're not going to let Nene dunk on you."
Ibaka raises up after the great Afflalo dish, meets Nene at the rim, and sends the dunk attempt away. Nene is a strong and powerful man, and he held his own against Kendrick Perkins. I don't know how Ibaka managed to block multiple Nene dunk attempts, but he did.
"Coach, we know we've had our struggles in late game plays, but I trust that you're going to do us right this time."
Durant runs a brilliant Randy Moss-like shake (his words, not mine) to get rid of Wilson Chandler, takes an inbounds pass from Harden, and sprinting toward the rim pulls up and sinks a dagger 19 footer for a three point lead.
"This is it guys. We need a stop here. We know that we've struggled with our defense all season, but we know that we're better now. We stopped them in the end in Game Three, and we can do it again now. We trust in each other to do this. We're not going to foul, and they're not going to get a good look. We stand here and we will win."
Denver's first 3-point attempt is blocked out of bounds by Durant. Their second and final attempt is defended well. The Thunder trap Afflalo in the corner as precious seconds ticked away. Afflalo was able to escape the double team but not Thabo Sefolosha, who hung with him and forced a fading shot that bounced off the rim.
All in all, it was an incredible turn of events performed. Yes, it was Kevin Durant's moment. It was his moment to shine, transcend, and steal the win in a way reminiscent of the good Kobe or Michael Jordan. However, the moment can't happen if the rest of the guys weren't ready and able to perform their part in the drama as well. I think that is what reverberates in me the most in reflection on this game.