couldn't be stopped in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By Rob Mahoney
After building up an early cushion, the Oklahoma Thunder seemed content to coast to their 12th consecutive win — an intention that clearly didn't sit too well with the persistent Atlanta Hawks. Slowly but surely the Hawks whittled away at a double-digit deficit, only to be completely overwhelmed by the late-game offensive stylings of Kevin Durant. Atlanta's comeback effort was for naught, and Durant propelled Oklahoma City to a 100-92 win that was a bit tighter than it had to be.
• The rhetoric of crunch time evokes a player who elevates his game in the most crucial moments, but in the case of Kevin Durant that specific imagery has never been quite accurate. Durant, after all, doesn't step up so much as step out — he emerges aglow from within the Thunder offense, sinking jumper after jumper as if makes were an assumption. Wednesday's game against the Atlanta Hawks provided just such an occasion; an easy basket with 8:22 remaining in the fourth marked Durant's arrival in full form, and the first two of 18 game-clinching, fourth-quarter points. Some were scored by way of defensive negligence and others following defensive embarrassment. But Durant responded to each with the same cold fury, a passion for this particular moment nonetheless informed by an undeniable truth. The best player on the floor was taking over, and if I can paraphrase the man himself: This was his [expletive omitted] house.
It's rare to find a night when watching Durant play basketball isn't one of this game's great pleasures, but there's a very particular charisma in watching him ply his trade in such unencumbered fashion. In that, maybe Kyle Korver and the Hawks — who played an active part in their own demise — are to be thanked for their supporting efforts; it was only by their collective ability to be scored over and around that Durant poured in 41 points on just 23 shots, each demoralizing to an Atlanta team that had pieced together an impressive, gradual comeback. Valiant attempt though it was, all the Hawks did was effectively set the stage for the game's leading performer.
• Durant's wildfire fourth quarter was particularly welcome because of all that came before it: a gruesome stretch of third quarter action in which the Thunder succumbed to their inner Hawks. Atlanta has played some fantastic basketball this season by way of their unexpectedly versatile defense — a compliment which doubles as an indicator of where that leaves their offense. There's still enough talent amongst the Hawks to put up points, but when Josh Smith and Jeff Teague are among the high-usage ball-handlers on the floor, there are bound to be fits of mania from which no real basketball actions can be recognized and no sustainable offense can be drawn. For roughly seven minutes, OKC played the same game — wildly pursuing every supposed advantage, and in the process looking to capitalize on events that were hardly working in their favor. Forced fast break tries turned into wild runners. Half-court sets broke down into out-of-control drives and forced passes. It went back and forth as each team attempted to contribute more to the game's general state of delirium, until the Hawks finally settled down into the roots of their comeback try. The Thunder soon answered with a heavy dose of Durant and Russell Westbrook (who was no slouch himself, notching 27 points and 11 assists for the evening) in the high pick and pop — a setup which queued up good attempts for both parties and created the momentum for KD to remove every bit of doubt in the game's result.
As interesting as the Hawks' personnel is from an offensive standpoint, Atlanta seems to have a very real problem of elevating any of its players beyond their most basic attributes. Almost every player on the roster can serve some specific function at an above-league-average level, and the lineup is anchored by two of the most versatile big men in the NBA. So why do the Hawks so often struggle to keep up in their scoring efforts, especially when they have two capable shot creators (Jeff Teague and Lou Williams
) setting up much of the offensive action? For some reason, the intuition and order that guide Atlanta's defense hasn't translated as cleanly into Larry Drew's offense, where the team's balance takes form as a bunch of related parts without the means to navigate the space between them in a productive way. They still work some magic by way of talented players doing impressive things, but the Hawks leave themselves almost no room for error with their dearth of offensive rebounding and tragic lack of free throw shooting. Everything they get is from the floor on the first attempt, and while that's clearly enough to win plenty of games (particularly given Atlanta's success with a basic but well-executed defense), it's hardly sufficient to top an opponent as formidable as the Thunder.