OKLAHOMA CITY — In a mad scramble to rebound his missed three-pointer late in the third quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 117-89 loss at San Antonio, Kevin Durant took an accidental slap from the Spurs’ Manu Ginobli. The blow caught the league’s most valuable player so hard on the right side of his face that Durant collapsed to the floor.
Durant’s trademark shoulder shimmy at the foul line wasn’t enough to shake off the shock of the smack. He uncharacteristically missed both free throws, adding to a frustrating evening in which his team got thrashed in San Antonio for a third time in these Western Conference finals. And now, for the third time this postseason, Durant and the Thunder will take the court with their season on the line.
“Must-win. Do-or-die. That’s self-explanatory. If you can get up for that,” Durant said. “We know that it’s a situation where if we lose, we go home and nobody wants to do that. We got another 48 minutes to take it to a Game 7 and who knows what can happen after that?”
If Durant’s response the past two times Oklahoma City was in this position were any example — the former Montrose Christian standout combined for 69 points, 18 rebounds and four assists in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis — the Thunder should feel confident about Saturday’s Game 6 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Spurs have lost nine straight dating from the 2012 conference finals. Given how this series has gone, however, Durant anticipates that beating the Spurs will require something other than an individual assault on the scoreboard.
“You know, it was a different series compared to the first two, whereas you’ve got to beat this team with a group of guys,” Durant said, mentioning the contributions of his fellow all-star Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson in the Thunder’s two wins this series. “This team makes you play with everybody. We can't just focus on going out and scoring a lot of points. You've got to do it on both ends of the floor.”
Throughout his career, Durant has saved some of his best performances for when the Thunder is on the verge of being knocked out, trying to close or both. In 14 career elimination games, Durant has averaged 29.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists. The Thunder has gone 3-0 in that situation this postseason, with Durant having a 39-point, 16-rebound, five-assist effort that sent the Los Angeles Clippers to their summer vacation in the second round.
Now Durant is attempting to avoid becoming the eighth MVP in the past 11 seasons whofailed to reach the NBA Finals.
Durant won his first MVP award after a regular season in which he won his fourth scoring title in the past five years and became the fourth player in NBA history — and first since Michael Jordan in 1988-89 — to average at least 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists. So he doesn’t view this game — or this series — as a referendum on his Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
“Pressure comes from everybody else from the outside, from media, from friends, family, but I play this game because I love it, and I play to win,” Durant said. “If I give it my all, it may not be enough for everybody else, but I know what I gave, so I can live with it.”
The Spurs have prevented Durant from having signature performance in this series, with the long-armed Kawhi Leonard forcing him to work for his looks and lopsided games limiting his time on the floor. Durant is averaging 24.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting in five games and has topped 30 points in one game — when his 31-point outing in Game 4 was overshadowed by Westbrook’s virtuoso act (40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals). It also hasn’t been lost on the confident but self-effacing Durant that the Thunder lost both games in which he led the team in scoring. He had a game-high 10 rebounds and a blocked shot in Oklahoma City’s Game 3.
“I feel like I put my hand print on the series,” Durant said. “It may not be in the usual way that people expect me to go out and score 40 a game, but I think I put my imprint on the series.”
Thunder reserve Derek Fisher has played alongside two other MVPs. He has watched a determined Shaquille O’Neal go on a rampage to win his first title in 2000 and Kobe Bryant do the same to reach the Finals for the first time without O’Neal in 2008. Durant has a different personality from both O’Neal and Bryant, but Fisher expects to see the same type of performance with the Thunder facing elimination.
“Just everything that he has. That’s all we can ask of him or anybody on our team,” Fisher said. “I’ve seen the best of the best not perform well statistically in the biggest games of the year, but their passion, their effort, just their desire to win was higher than everybody else’s. So Kevin doesn’t have to show up and score 40 points and have MVP numbers, I guess, but we need everybody to show up just with a desire to win that is stronger than our opponents’ and we won’t necessarily have to ask for anything else but that.”
The flight back from San Antonio after the loss in Game 5 was unnerving for Durant, but he was able to quickly move on. He returned home to his family and friends and tried his best not to let the game consume him.
“We just try to get rid of it and learn from it,” Durant said. “I’ve learned not to let basketball take over my life. I have friends and family that make sure I don't go crazy, just do stuff that makes me happy. Just having positive people around me not always criticizing me helps. . . . I have to look at the grand scheme of things and know that we have another opportunity. I’m excited about that.”