By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; D01
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In a move that could have been perceived as naive, daring or dumb, Kevin Durant asked for a fourth-quarter challenge on Thursday that most would rather avoid. At the urging of Oklahoma City assistant coach Ron Adams, Durant signaled to teammate James Harden to make a switch on defense.
Durant wanted to -- no, needed to -- guard Kobe Bryant during those final 12 minutes in which Bryant has established his reputation as the best closer in the game.
The move startled Bryant, who isn't used to having his shots contested by a 6-foot-9 forward with seemingly never-ending, elastic arms. Durant helped force Bryant into missing eight of his 10 field goals in the fourth quarter. He blocked one of Bryant's shots and saved the ball to preserve a four-point lead, then posted up Bryant, spun around him and nailed a baseline runner in a scintillating sequence that secured the Thunder's 101-96 win over the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder now trails the Lakers two games to one in its best-of-seven series, with Game 4 set for Saturday in Oklahoma City.
Durant struggled with his shot for his third consecutive playoff game, but he out-Kobe'd Kobe in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of his game-high 29 points. With his parents, Wayne and Wanda Pratt, and two grandmothers sitting courtside, Durant officially announced his arrival in the 2010 NBA postseason.
"I just wanted to play my hardest for my team," said Durant, who added a career-high 19 rebounds. "Kobe is the greatest player in the world right now. Coming out the gates, playing against the best, the reigning champs, that's an experience that you're never going to forget. So, it's all about taking it head on."
That approach should be expected for Durant, given his accelerated ascension to superstardom -- which has seen the 21-year-old, third-year player become the youngest scoring champion in league history and lead the NBA's youngest team to 50 wins and the postseason, one year after finishing with just 23 wins. Despite the disappointment of last season, Durant boldly said last summer that anything short of the playoffs would be considered a failure.
"At that point, you're kind of like: 'Okay young fella, relax. Slow down,' " said Thunder Coach Scott Brooks, who received the NBA coach of the year award this week. "Turns out, he's the smartest one in the group. He has a lot of belief in what we were doing and the guys we have surrounding him in our locker room."
Durant is surrounded by a young core that features 21-year-old, second-year point guard Russell Westbrook, rookie Harden and former Georgetown star Jeff Green, who has teamed with fellow Washington-area native Durant every step of the way -- dating from when the franchise was located in Seattle.
"I knew we had a group of guys around here that like to play the game of basketball, first off, and have a passion for the game, because some people lose the passion for it, once they get to the NBA," said Durant, who grew up in Suitland. "We have a group of guys that love the game and like playing basketball with each other. I knew right away that that was an ingredient for success."
The Thunder lost its first two games in Los Angeles by a combined 11 points and felt confident coming back home for Oklahoma City's first NBA playoff game. On Thursday, Westbrook scored 27 points and turned the game around with an emphatic slam over the Lakers' Lamar Odom; Harden made up for two scoreless performances in Los Angeles with 18 points, and Green quietly helped settle down his noticeably jittery teammates by scoring the Thunder's first six points.
While Durant has shot poorly, with Lakers forward Ron Artest repeatedly using force and physical defense, the versatile 6-9 Green also had difficulty scoring while exerting energy to defend Bryant, all-star power forward Pau Gasol and point guard Derek Fisher during this series. Green said he has received encouraging text messages from friends and family back home in Maryland and won't get down on himself.
"I'm going to keep battling," said Green, who is averaging 10.7 points in the postseason, nearly four points less than his regular season average. "Third year in the league, getting that playoff experience early, we know we're going to go through a lot of things in this first round, especially against the Lakers. Because that's the team that we someday want to be. That's the level we want to play at. If we want to be a champion, we have to go through a champion. We have an opportunity now and we have to take some things from this, good and bad. We're going to learn a lot from them and get better as each season goes along."
And that could be a scary proposition for the rest of the league, with Durant beating out LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Bryant to win the scoring title with an average of 30.1 points. He supplanted 22-year-old Max Zaslofsky of the 1947-48 Chicago Stags as the youngest scoring champ in NBA history. All season, Durant tried to play down his scoring prowess, claiming that he is not in the same class as those established scorers.
"I still feel as though I'm not in that group," said Durant, who made his first all-star appearance and finished second in most improved player voting this season. "I might have won [the scoring title], but those guys, I think, are still above me as far as doing the things they do. I watch guys like them in the playoffs and regular season and I try to take parts of their games and try to put it in my game. I have a long way to go before I get to that elite class. I hope I get there, before it's all said and done."
Durant had been prepared for situations like Game 3 ever since Seattle drafted him No. 2 overall in 2007. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti dealt established veterans Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis and forced Durant into the role as unquestioned franchise cornerstone when he was barely 19. The early results were often unflattering, but Durant persisted, stayed in the gym and focused on improving on both ends of the floor. Long criticized for his approach on the defensive end, Durant blocked four shots in Game 2 and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson praised him for his "inspirational" defense in shutting down Bryant.
"He's just continuing to learn, continuing to get better and better," Bryant said. "I think the playoff experience is a whole other animal. He's starting to figure things out, more and more, in this type of environment. He's a fantastic player already."
But Durant said he is barely getting started. "I want to win everything, every game. I want to be a champion. That's what it's about," he said. "No matter how bad I'm shooting, how many rebounds or assists I get. I want to win, no matter what. It's all about trying to hold my ground and playing with heart. That's what I'm all about."