Kevin Durant was at his shot-making best in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against San Antonio, knocking down contested jumpers, scoring in transition and willing the Oklahoma City Thunder to a series-evening victory at two games each.
He made all six of his field goal attempts to finish with 41 points, and yet his biggest impact may have come on the other end of the floor.
Durant used his 6-foot-11 frame to make life difficult for Kawhi Leonard, and if he can bring the same type of defensive intensity into a pivotal Game 5 in San Antonio tonight, the Thunder become an even more imposing mountain for the Spurs to climb than they already were.
“There’s no individuals in this game, there’s no individual matchups,” Durant said. “There’s no strictly 1-on-1 matchups in this game. There’s 10 guys on the court. I may guard a guy, or he may guard me, but it’s a whole team trying to stop the ball.”
Durant has long been one of the league’s most unstoppable scorers, a shooting guard with a center’s wing span and a point guard’s handle who can get his shot wherever and whenever he wants it.
But he’s always taken pride on coming through defensively in the biggest moments, and he told teammate and friend Russell Westbrook in the fourth quarter that he was up for the challenge. Leonard was 0 for 5 in the final period of Oklahoma City’s 111-97 victory and Durant even took a charge, a rarity for him.
“I think he did a good job at both ends of the court,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He had a fine game all the way around without any doubt.”
Now the Spurs head back home, where they have lost just two games all season, looking to rekindle the ball movement and energy that led to an overwhelming 32-point win in Game 1. That game seems like ages ago.
The Thunder have awakened, and they’re not going to go quietly.
“This is going to be fun, I’m excited,” Durant said. “This is playoff basketball. This is what you live for. This is the type of basketball you’ve been dreaming about as a kid. You’ve just got to embrace the challenge and play extremely hard like we’ve been playing.”
All that beautiful ball movement that the Spurs have been known for over the last five or six seasons has disappeared as this series has worn on. San Antonio shot 60 percent and had an incredible 39 assists in the Game 1 rout.
The Spurs had 19 assists in each of their next two games and then just 12 in the Game 4 loss on Sunday.
“They have been down, but things do slow down in the playoffs,” Popovich said. “Having said that, we need to have a little bit more ball movement and get a few more passes out on the court, for sure.”
The stagnancy the Spurs showed on Sunday was a common criticism the Thunder have heard over the years, when at times their offense has devolved into Durant and Westbrook taking turns taking shots.
“Guys wanted the ball and just didn’t make shots. We never really got into a good offensive rhythm but we kept making runs,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Guys kept making plays at certain times but we had a lot of open looks that we didn’t make. If you don’t make shots, the assists don’t come.”
The Spurs could also use more of the dominant Aldridge they saw in the first two games. The big free agent prize of last summer exploded for 79 points and made 33 of his 44 shots in the first two games.
But the Thunder did not panic and make rash adjustments to the game plan. Instead, first-year coach Billy Donovan stuck to the principles they started the series with, refusing to double Aldridge in the post too aggressively.
Aldridge has scored 44 points on 16-for-39 shooting over the last two games.
“He’s just missing shots. That’s all it is,” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “We’re sticking to the same principles. He’s just missing shots, thankfully.”
AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.