OKLAHOMA CITY (CBS SPORTS) — It was pretty much exactly as they drew it up.
No, seriously. Kevin Durant’s go-ahead jumper with 11.1 seconds left to give the Thunder Game 1 over the Grizzlies on Sunday went essentially according to plan.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks laid it out simply: get a steal, get the ball to Durant, and get a win.
“During that timeout, I said if we get a stop, and it’s in Kevin’s hands, or a long rebound in the right guy’s hands, push,” Brooks said. “We don’t want the defense to get set. If we don’t get a stop, call timeout. Or, if we get a stop and it’s not in the right guy’s hands, we’re going to call timeout.”
With the Grizzlies up one with under 20 seconds left, Mike Conley beat Derek Fisher around a screen and appeared to have a clean path to the rim to put Memphis up three. Fisher, in complete desperation, reached around from behind, poking the ball out of Conley’s hands and directly into Durant’s.
“As soon as I saw Kevin get possession of the ball, I instantly knew we were going to just take off and run with it,” Fisher said. “It was exactly the way the coaches said — if it happens this way, this is what we’re going to do.”
And once Durant had the ball in his possession, almost everyone knew what was coming. In a postseason without Russell Westbrook, Durant has been forced to assert himself as the Thunder’s leader, both in huddles and on the floor. There was no other option than for Durant to live or die with that shot. It’s a responsibility he lives for, understanding the weight of failure that comes with a miss.
“I knew that was a bucket. I ain’t trying to be arrogant, seriously. I just knew that shot was going in,” Kendrick Perkins said. “I knew he was going to touch ’em up. KD lives for those type of moments. He’s just got a gift.”
Durant proved Perkins right. When the ball left his hands, a beautifully lofted 18-foot pull-up, it was good all the way. Pure, and straight through.
“That was the only shot I think I could find, and by the grace of God, it went in,” Durant said.
Durant’s only 24, but he’s lived through a 15-year veteran’s worth of postseason experience. He’s made big shots; he’s missed big shots. He’s felt the joy of winning a game for his team; he’s felt the agony of feeling like he lost it. But like Brooks drew it up — if the ball is in Kevin’s hands, he said — the Thunder were willing to sink or swim with one stroke from Durant.
“I think that’s where it starts, the lack of fear of failing in those situations,” Fisher said of Durant. “Then also being strong enough mentally to accept what comes with not making the shots. That’s what makes the special ones special.”
Durant’s shot rescued the Thunder from what would have been an extremely deflating Game 1 loss. Without Westbrook, everything feels extremely fragile with this Thunder team. Deficits feel larger, losing feels more significant. And falling in a Game 1 at home against a team most everyone isn’t giving them a chance to beat, that would’ve been a massive blow to their personal confidence.
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