Tuesday December 22nd, 2015

LOS ANGELES — Kevin Durant delivered an effortless, savvy ending to a game in which even the simplest basketball acts—dribbling, passing, running without falling down—often proved unusually difficult.

The Thunder’s 100-99 road victory over the Clippers on Monday was marred by bloopers, loaded with non-contributors and generally lacking in polish. In the final seconds, though, all that stumbling, bumbling and fumbling gave way to Durant, who is back to his smooth-shooting, agile self after a lost season due to injury and a brief absence in November.

To the dismay of the Clippers, who will head into the New Year without a signature win, the 2014 MVP got exactly what he wanted on one end and then perfectly read L.A.’s intentions on the other. With 5.8 seconds left, down one, Durant swished a go-ahead mid-range jumper. Then, on the game’s final play, he read the clock and blitzed Chris Paul, snuffing out a potential game-winner before it left his hand.

WATCH: Durant seals game with last-second shot, block vs. Clippers

“To be honest, [the final seconds are] the most carefree I am the whole game,” Durant told reporters afterwards, his necklace and pendant gleaming over a black leather jacket. “When I get the ball, I just be myself. If I miss it, I throw it in the memory bank and try to be better next time. If I make it, I move on. I just try to be completely carefree.”

On the winning bucket, Durant looked totally unbothered as he exploited the clearest mismatch on the court: himself versus Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, L.A.’s overmatched, stand-in small forward. The whole sequence was so rudimentary he might as well have been explaining a drill for a summer basketball camp or working through repetitions in an empty gym.

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Durant received the inbounds pass with 10.9 seconds left without working too hard to get open. He turned to face the hoop without any obstruction. He started working on Mbah a Moute without any hint of defensive help coming. He pulled up near the right elbow with a familiar herky-jerky dribble move that left him without anyone in his space and with a clean look at the rim. His shot nestled cleanly through without drawing iron. As easy as it gets.

“He’s an incredible offensive player, he’s an incredible scorer,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “The thing that makes him so unique in those situations is that you know he’s going to get a shot off. It’s hard to do anything about it because of his length. … When you can get him the ball in good space and the floor is open, it makes it difficult [for the defense].”

Seconds later, Durant showed that he can close down space just as effectively as he can create it. L.A.’s final play cycled through multiple options—a looping J.J. Redick and a rolling Blake Griffin—before Paul opted to call his own number and work against Serge Ibaka on the right wing. Any hope of a game-winning step-back jumper got swallowed whole by Durant, who abandoned Wesley Johnson in the right corner to rush directly at Paul once the clock hit two seconds.

Durant’s situational risk assessment was spot-on: Paul appeared committed to the shot, Johnson isn’t known as a big-game threat, and there was so little time left that a catch-and-shoot would have been difficult to execute. Durant blocked the shot with his left hand and avoided fouling Paul as time expired. It was the second time this season that Durant has had a game-sealing block: back on Halloween, he closed out a double-overtime victory over the Magic with a last-second deflection.

“[Paul] had no other choice but to shoot it,” said Durant, who finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. “I knew he was going to shoot it. I wasn’t going to sit there and let him. There was a second on the clock. He had no other options. He’s 6-foot and I’m 6-11.”

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This save-the-day hero act from Durant turned a potentially embarrassing loss into a satisfying victory, the Thunder’s eighth win in their last nine games. Immediately before Durant’s game-winner, Russell Westbrook let an inbounds pass slip between his hands in the backcourt, setting up a gift-wrapped layup for Paul. But that’s the value of an experienced and sure hand: Durant moved on immediately from the momentum swing, closing out the game rather than dwelling on Westbrook’s error or his own shooting struggles earlier in the game.

Paul, meanwhile, was left to contemplate the shot he couldn’t get off in another rough loss. The Clippers are now 0–6 against their four major West rivals (Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets) this season. The lingering sting of their Western Conference finals collapse and blown leads in both losses against Golden State seemed to resurface again Monday. 

“We executed offensively until I got my shot blocked on the last play,” Paul lamented, after posting a team-high 32 points and 10 assists in a strong all-around individual showing. “No moral victories today. We have been a possession away on all of those close games, but it does no good unless we figure out a way to start winning.”

Nevertheless, very little separated the Thunder and Clippers, who are both grappling with lineup questions and making due with rotational weak links as they chase the Warriors and Spurs, the West’s two unimpeachable favorites.

For Oklahoma City, it’s still unclear whether the supporting pieces are ready to be night-to-night contributors and whether their big lineups—which are their top performing units—will get run off the court by the defending champs. Against the Clippers, Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler and Anthony Morrow were all virtually non-factors offensively, while Enes Kanter suffered through an uncharacteristically unproductive night too. Will a three-man or four-man offense be able to find success against the West’s top two teams? Are Durant and Westbrook headed for another postseason of insane statistics and, ultimately, frustration?  

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For L.A., Monday’s endgame exposed its glaring lack of a small forward who can lock down premier wings in crunch time and/or keep defenses honest with corner shooting. Mbah a Moute is simply overmatched against elite wings, Johnson likely is too, and Paul Pierce wasn’t available due to a (presumably age-related) back injury. Lance Stephenson, the Clippers’ best available option for this role, offered his version of a spark off the bench: 10 points, four turnovers, one technical foul and plenty of chirping. That whole experience, as always, is difficult to fully trust. How are the Clippers going to overcome this predicament without a personnel change?  

Yet, unlike so many West also-rans, these two teams do have established in-their-prime trios with years of shared playoff successes to fall back on. The Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka and Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan cores are proven commodities that are producing potent results. Oklahoma City (No. 2) and L.A. (No. 5) rank among the league’s most efficient offenses again. Although the big, long and active Thunder have so far outperformed the Clippers defensively, both teams remain strong candidates to claim home-court advantage in the West. Oklahoma City is solidifying itself in the West’s No. 3 spot, and L.A., for all of its flaws, is more athletic than Dallas, more dangerous and modern than Memphis, and more stable than Houston.

By process of elimination, the Thunder and Clippers look like the two surest members of the West’s second tier. Both teams continue to inspire curiosity because their highs can be really high and because they still have sufficient time to further improve their chemistry. Durant’s game-deciding plays—the fearless jumper and the sharp-witted block—should therefore be comforting for the Thunder, who were rudderless in his absence last year, and motivating for the flustered Clippers, who might actually be drowning in motivation at this point.

But those final six seconds only determined a game’s outcome, they didn’t provide any real, long-lasting resolution. The first meeting between the Thunder and Clippers should be remembered as an evenly-matched showdown between two promising works in progress. Neither of these teams is where it wants, or needs, to be.

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