In a big road test against the Los Angeles Clippers for Western Conference supremacy, Kevin Durant was unproductive and almost non-existent to start the game. Those aren’t words you typically use to describe Durant at any point, but it was inexplicably true. The league’s leading scorer was quiet throughout the first quarter, scoring only one lonely bucket.
The slow start spurred a few lines of thought. Maybe the Clippers really did have Durant’s number. Did it make any sense? No, but how do the Bobcats have an all-time series advantage over the Lakers? These things don’t always have to make sense. And after all, Durant had shot just 21-for-58 (36 percent) and turned it over 13 times in his last three games against the Clippers. Maybe something was going on here.
As it turned out, the perfect storm wasn’t brewing for the Clippers — it was just the calm before the storm for Durant, who turned it on late in an impressive 109-97 victory.
While there are many things that contribute to a team’s greatness, the ability to compensate for a star player’s off night ranks high on the list. With most of the action early on taking place in the restricted circle, Thunder guard Kevin Martin broke the game out in a big way. Martin rattled off three straight 3-pointers without a miss between the first and second quarters, capping off a 17-2 Thunder run with a steal and breakaway dunk.
The Clippers will go bench against bench with any team, but Martin’s barrage put them on their heels. Jamal Crawford’s struggles (6-for-18) were a symptom of a greater problem. The bench struggled to outplay the Thunder as a whole, and that’s a main avenue to victory for the Clippers on most nights.
But this wasn’t like most nights for more than a few reasons. Without Chris Paul in the lineup, the steady diet of open looks didn’t come quite as spoon-fed. While Blake Griffin was incredible around the rim with 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, there was a lot of standing and watching him offensively. With the length of Oklahoma City’s defenders on the perimeter, that usually spells trouble.
Still, it wasn’t the Clippers’ offense that doomed them in this one, and even though the Thunder shot 52.6 percent from the field, it’s hard to degrade the defense either. With Durant scoring just 8 points in the first half, Oklahoma City received unexpected perimeter performances from Thabo Sefolosha (3-for-5 from deep) and Russell Westbrook (3-for-6). Most defenses will gladly live with that instead of Durant, but the Clippers wouldn’t live for long.
After cutting Oklahoma City’s lead to eight about halfway through the fourth quarter, Durant finally made some real noise. After banking in a 3-pointer minutes earlier, Durant touched nothing but net on his next 3-point attempt. That one felt so nice that the very next time down the floor, Durant pulled up from the left wing and did it again. Nylon.
It was right about this time that you figured the Clippers were done. The life was understandably sucked out of the crowd, there was no Chris Paul to break in case of emergency, and 14 points is an awful lot to make up in half a quarter.
But who knows? Maybe they could have, if only Durant’s flair for the dagger wasn’t contagious. Out of the timeout, as he faked a pull-up and penetrated, Durant kicked it to a wide-open Serge Ibaka in the corner for 3. Forget that Ibaka has made exactly 9 shots form behind the arc in his career — it fell in like it was from Durant’s hands himself.
If there were a referee more of the Mills Lane variety than the Joey Crawford type, he would have called the fight right then and there. But after a Matt Barnes 3-pointer on the other end to answer Ibaka’s, Durant made extra sure to drive the point home with an emphatic spike right down the heart of the defense.
That finally did it. The Clippers never stopped playing, but Durant had an answer for everything, and that answer was usually a 3-pointer. Durant finished 5-of-6 from behind the arc, while Oklahoma City finished a ridiculous 15-of-27. And after what looked like a slow night, a quiet night, a night where the Clippers could beat the best team in the league without Chris Paul, Durant finished with 32 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists on 12-for-19 shooting.
It may have seemed for a fleeting moment that the Clippers had Kevin Durant’s number, but in the end, like he usually does, Durant got his.