Ever since the 2011 playoffs, when Oklahoma City outlasted Memphis but fell to Dallas, Kevin Durant has been obsessed with efficiency. He sets only two goals in training camp: To win a championship, and to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90-percent from the free-throw line. This season, Durant became just the seventh player to enter that hallowed club, a testament to his shot selection as much as his marksmanship. For Durant, there is no such thing as a bad shot because there is no perimeter defender long enough to bother him, yet he always seems to select the very best ones. Unless he is in his sweet spots at the elbows, the corners, or atop the key, he prefers to pass. He has virtually eliminated two-point shots outside of 17 feet. That's how he led the Western Conference in scoring without leading his team in field-goal attempts.
For Durant and the Thunder, everything changed the moment Russell Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee. Reggie Jackson had to start at point guard. Derek Fisher had to log key minutes. And Durant had to stop being so picky. With 20 seconds left in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday, Memphis led Oklahoma City by a point, and Grizzlies guard Mike Conley bounded around a screen from Marc Gasol. There was nothing between Conley and the basket but open hardwood. Fisher, beaten by a step, could only reach for the ball. He jarred it loose and Durant picked it up. Instead of calling a timeout to design a play, Durant charged down the right wing and pulled up inside the three-point line against Tayshaun Prince, one of the few people on the planet whose arms are about as long as Durant's. "I just wanted to get up the floor as quick as possible and find a shot," Durant said. "That's the only shot I could find."
It was exactly the kind of shot Durant has discarded this season, a 19-foot two-pointer, and precisely the kind he has to let fly for Oklahoma City in order for his team to survive the West playoffs. He made it, a reminder that while Durant may be most effective in his sweet spots, he's potent everywhere. The Thunder took Game 1 from the Grizzlies, 93-91, and not because they have the better team. They simply have the best player, and at this time of year, in the fourth quarter, there is often no more important factor. Asked whether he was surprised that the Thunder didn't call timeout after the steal, Conley said: "When you've got KD, I don't think it really matters." Durant scored 35 points, 12 in the fourth, and finished with twice as many rebounds (15) and assists (6) as any of his teammates.
Oklahoma City, searching for an identity in Westbrook's absence, trailed by 12 points late in the third quarter and went with a small lineup that included Jackson, Fisher and Kevin Martin in addition to Durant. That group keyed the comeback. From the Thunder perspective, Martin was the centerpiece of the James Harden trade, and he has eased comfortably into the sixth man role. He is still coming off the bench, but without Westbrook, Martin has emerged as the Thunder's second-best perimeter option. Thirty-six hours after he closed out Houston with 25 points, Martin started the series against Memphis with 25 more. With Martin out-dueling defensive ace Tony Allen, the Grizzlies subbed Quincy Pondexter, who responded with three three-pointers, including one on a double pump from half-court.
With 2.9 seconds left and Memphis down by three points, the ball went to Pondexter again, and Oklahoma City overreacted. As he rose to attempt a game-tying three, Jackson fouled him, and Pondexer strode to the line with a chance to tie. "It was deafening," Pondexter said. Harden and Westbrook are gone, but Durant and the crowd remain. Chesapeake Energy Arena is still arguably the loudest venue in the NBA and the noise washed over Pondexter. His first attempt of three was long, one of 10 missed free throws for the Grizzlies, and after making the second, his third one, which he intentionally missed, was batted away by Durant to prevent an offensive rebound. "Free throws aren't why we lost," Gasol said.
Memphis actually led by three points with 1:08 left when an inbounds pass slid through the hands of Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins and was recovered by the Grizzlies. They had a chance to seal the outcome, but Prince missed a running jumper, then Fisher swiped Conley, and finally Gasol threw an off-balance pass that Conley couldn't corral. The Grizz failed to score in all three of those last-minute possessions, and in two of them they didn't even muster a shot. The Oklahoma City defense, weakened without Westbrook, has apparently rediscovered its bearings. The offense has not, but the Thunder can endure, because they happen to employ one of the most prolific scorers alive.
Durant would like to beat Memphis from the elbows, the corners and the top of the key, taking about 18 shots per game and sinking about 55 percent of them. But circumstances in Oklahoma City are no longer ideal. Durant has been pushed out of his hot zones, and maybe that's okay, because he can still beat almost anybody from almost anywhere.