OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant stood on the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena and let the noise wash over him, noise like you don't hear anywhere else in pro sports, unique because of the volume but also because of the tone. It is less of a full-throated bellow than a high-pitched shriek, the sound of families with children who are hopped up on candy way past their bedtimes, at the state's most delightful circus. Durant built this big top, with his youth and his bounce, his long arms and feathery jumpers. Fans around town wear T-shirts with his name in place of the Thunder logo. That's about right. He and the franchise are interchangeable. They came to Oklahoma City together and they will likely win championships together. The only question is when.
In San Antonio, the Thunder looked years away, and then they returned to the familiar clamor, and suddenly they appear only a few weeks off. So it goes with young powers, growing in fits and starts, until they emerge fully formed. The Thunder won again Saturday night, 109-103, and the Spurs' 20-game winning streak seems like it was so long ago. The Spurs can line up all their Larry O'Brien trophies and individual awards, but none of that rusted hardware can obscure the truth about this series: Oklahoma City has the best player on the floor and it's not close.
Durant is treating the postseason like an extension of his barnstorming tour last summer, when he lit up playgrounds from Harlem to L.A. In the first round of the playoffs, he beat the Mavericks with a game-winner. In the second round, he beat the Lakers with two. And in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night, when the Spurs cut the deficit to four points in the fourth quarter, Durant embarked on an unforgettable onslaught that cements his status among the NBA's elite closers.
He scored 16 consecutive points, with a torrent of fadeaways and turnaround jumpers, plus a floater in the lane and an ally-oop from the baseline. He burned through two San Antonio defenders, first Kawhi Leonard and then Stephen Jackson, and when he was done the de facto NBA Finals were tied 2-2. "I just try to take it on, try not to be nervous," Durant said. "Sometimes it's nerve-racking playing those games like that. But I just try to calm down and go with my instincts."
Durant had been searching for a groove in this series, and when he consulted the tape, he saw that he was moving too fast, coming off screens before they were set. "Slow down," he told himself. He scored just eight points in the first half Saturday, but the best closers tend to do that, as if pacing themselves for the final lap. "I wouldn't say I carried us," Durant said, which might have been his only mistake of the night. When Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was asked if it seemed like Durant took over the game, he replied: "It didn't seem like that. That was a fact. I was there. I saw it."
As Durant gazed at the box score, he glanced over his 36 points, and his eyes settled on the Thunder's 27 assists. That's 50 assists in the past two games for a team that ranked last in assists this season, a sign of growth if there ever was one. The Thunder have swiped much from San Antonio over the years, including general manager Sam Presti, as well as several other club officials. If they can also adopt the Spurs selfless style, they will be virtually unstoppable. "We've got to go to our first option and that's Kevin," said point guard Russell Westbrook. "He's been doing a great job all season of closing games for us. When things get tight, he always finds a way."
Oklahoma City won Game 3 with only 10 points from Westbrook and Game 4 with only seven, another discomforting notion for the Spurs. At some point, Westbrook and Durant are bound to erupt in unison, though it's no longer a requirement for the Thunder. Their front line, exposed in San Antonio, dominated in Bricktown. Serge Ibaka led the Thunder for three-and-a-half quarters, making all 11 field goals, scoring 26 points, and flying past Tim Duncan as if he were his grandfather.
It is easy to make social-security jokes about San Antonio, and if this season is any indication, it is also stupid. The last time the Spurs dropped two in a row, they reeled off 20 straight wins. They are headed home for Game 5, where their offense hums, and Oklahoma City scuffles. The din is different at AT&T Center. The Thunder is unable to turn noise into fuel.
The Spurs will trust in their experience, their system and their winning pedigree, which counts for a lot. The Thunder will trust in the best player on the court, which often counts for more.