Friday December 19th, 2014

You never really see the onset of a wildfire.  At some point there must have been a hard, inciting spark, but by the time the flames are sizable enough to command notice they’ve already begun to rage. Such was the incendiary state of Kevin Durant’s game against the Warriors on Friday night, that brought about a shooting performance ridiculous even by his standards. Durant’s first shot and make came after a mere minute of action, followed by an and-one finish shortly after. Durant’s next attempt -- a 15-footer hoisted under the protection of a Steven Adams screen -- fell softly through the net. Then came the flashover. In the span of 50 seconds, Durant scorched in a trio of seemingly identical three-pointers over Harrison Barnes, a generally solid defender made hopeless in this particular circumstance. 

There was nothing that could be done. Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green both tried their hand at quelling Durant, but over the course of the first half Durant would make 10-of-13 shots overall including another pair of three-pointers. He landed on 30 points before landing on the foot of Marreese Speights, spraining his ankle in the process. On this night, Durant could not be phased. Yet with a single bad step his performance -- the shortest 30-point outing in NBA history -- was over.

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Durant did not return, but he will ultimately be fine. His sprain was diagnosed as minor by team doctors and initial X-rays came back negative. He told reporters he sat out the second half for caution’s sake, as would make sense for a player who returned from a broken foot just a few weeks prior

From there what turned out to be a good, otherwise entertaining game was bogged down in the heavy air of the hypothetical. This could well have been a career night for the greatest scorer in the league, as well as a formal announcement of the Thunder’s intention to storm the upper tiers of the Western Conference standings. The opportunity for the former was lost outright with Durant’s unfortunate injury, and any chance of the latter fell away gradually in Oklahoma City’s 114-109 loss

In fairness, this was as admirable a defeat for the Thunder as could be had under the circumstances. Oklahoma City never gave in. The execution on both ends faltered at times, but runs of Warriors hot shooting were met with Russell Westbrook’s relentless driving and fits of disruptive defense. That this was a rough shooting night for Westbrook beyond the first quarter (he finished 11-for-30 overall), a roundly poor performance by Reggie Jackson, and an uneven defensive outing had no bearing on Oklahoma City's energy level. The Thunder pushed their way to a lead with 2:50 remaining in the fourth quarter, and though they couldn’t quite keep pace with the Warriors the rest of the way, there’s no shame in coming just short of matching one of the most potent offenses in the league short a half of Durant.

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All the same, this was an opportunity missed for the Thunder, even if that stemmed from Durant’s tweaked ankle. Oklahoma City is set to be a playoff team again thanks to the accelerated returns of both Durant and Westbrook. Where the Thunder fall within the eventual playoff bracket (and which opponent they’ll eventually match up against), however, is subject to their nightly performance. Every winnable game matters in the West, and for the Thunder mostly every game is winnable. With that comes pressure. It’s ridiculous that NBA teams would concern themselves with seeding some 57 games in advance of the postseason, but the matchup game has never seemed more important than in this year’s field.

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It would be incredible if the Thunder could somehow scrap their way into home-court advantage, though doing so would require an absurd rate of winning if we assume that the rest of the West holds pace. Oklahoma City, after all, is technically slotted for 10th in the West -- a full 4.0 games behind the seventh-seeded Spurs and 5.5 games behind the sixth-seeded Mavericks. That’s a lot of ground to cover on two teams that aren’t likely to lose often, which makes the thought of dropping this precious game to the Warriors all the more unfortunate. This was a random Thursday in December that in itself will bear no basketball consequence after Durant goes through a few ice packs. In the final balance, however, the margins in the West may be so thin that some random Thursday in December could make all the difference.

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