LOS ANGELES — Kevin Durant had to resist his initial impulse. When his pull-up three-pointer over Metta World Peace splashed through the net with 13.7 seconds remaining Saturday night — providing the decisive points in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 103-100 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers — Durant turned and glared toward his bench, stone-faced.
Durant left the theatrics to his teammate Russell Westbrook, who hooted, skipped and gleefully jumped into him after Durant had once again delivered in a situation from which other superstars have shrunk this postseason. Behind Durant’s cold-blooded stare were the pent-up emotions and excitement that come from connecting on a shot he had rehearsed in his mind and made several times over while practicing, all alone, as a gangly teenager in the Seat Pleasant Recreation Center.
“It was one of those things,” Durant said in the bowels of Staples Center about an hour after scoring 31 points in the Game 4 victory that gave the Thunder a 3-1 lead in its best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series against the Lakers. “We fought so hard, being down all game, I had to kind of calm myself down from screaming and throwing fists and all of that.”
Durant, 23, knew how to react after watching enough highlights of game-winners and studying the mannerisms of other players who have established reputations for clutch performances — including his opponent in this series, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan before him. Closers are cold-blooded. Closers don’t reveal emotion. Closers understand being lethal is routine.
“That’s the role I want,” Durant said. “Coming in, being one of the main guys, I want to take those shots. I got to live with what people say when I miss them and I can’t get too happy about what people say when I make them. I’ve got to know that if I make a shot in the closing seconds, I got to walk off as if I’ve done it before and if I miss it, I got to walk off like I made it.”
Oklahoma City has seven playoff victories so far, and Durant has already provided the game-winning basket in three of them. He hit an off-balance fallaway shot that danced around the rim before dropping in the playoff opener against defending champion Dallas. He hit a short runner over the outstretched arm of Lakers forward Pau Gasol in Game 2.
His shot in Game 4 was probably the most impressive; it helped the Thunder avoid returning home mentally shaken with the series tied at 2-2. Durant also had to block out missing two free throws that could have tied the game with 2 minutes 33 seconds remaining before hitting a difficult baseline jumper shortly thereafter.
Westbrook had carried the Thunder for most of the night, scoring 10 of his team-high 37 points in the fourth quarter, but even he knew when — and for whom — to step aside.
“He’s the best scorer in the game. He’s proven it, all season long,” Westbrook said of Durant, the youngest ever NBA three-time scoring champion. “He has the confidence in the closing minutes in the fourth quarter and my job as the point guard is to let him finish the games off for us, like he’s been doing all year.”
After intercepting Gasol’s meek pass to World Peace, Durant dribbled down the clock, and got to the spot where he wanted. He didn’t want to go inside because the Lakers had been contesting shots at the rim well, and when he saw World Peace “back up just a hair,” Durant had the room he needed to bury a feathery jumper.
“It left my hand, I was thinking, if this doesn’t go in, it’s going to be a terrible shot. They are going to criticize me a lot on this one,” Durant said.
Bryant has held the reputation as the game’s most clutch player, even though he has missed his past eight shots in the playoffs with an opportunity to take a lead or tie in the final 24 seconds — including a missed three-pointer Saturday in response to Durant’s shot.
But Durant and Bryant both know that the willingness to take that shot is the first step toward making it.
Aside from his late three-pointer, Durant also was valuable in his defense against Bryant, helping to limit him to just 2-of-10 shooting in the final period (including a meaningless jumper as time expired). Thunder Coach Scott Brooks told Durant to “go get him” when the team chopped down a 13-point deficit to four and Bryant missed all four of his shot attempts with the 6-foot-9 Durant defending.
“I didn’t want to back down from a challenge,” Durant said.
Durant wanted that responsibility when the Thunder lost to the Lakers in a six-game first-round series two years ago, but he and Oklahoma City weren’t ready. He has matured from those days, and even from last year. He’s wearing wide-brimmed spectacles and tailored suits instead of walking around with a backpack. His team is no longer satisfied with just being on this stage, and Durant is less than willing to let Bryant have the edge.
Durant already has committed a hard foul against Bryant and refused to help him up in late March, already come from behind to steal away Bryant’s scoring title and now he is one win away from exacting revenge for that playoff loss.
“To play against one of the greatest players ever, someone who, of course, I watched growing up, is fun,” Durant said. “To hit a shot like that shows how much we’ve grown and me as an individual. It’s all about growth. I’m learning when to take over, when to take shots. My teammates are always feeding me and I’ve got to do a great job of finishing.”