OKLAHOMA CITY — There comes a time in every viewer’s life when they experience a “Holy Shit” moment with Kevin Durant.
Pardon the profanity.
But damn, you know?
For many of you, this was not the first time Durant made your jaw drop. The guy has been putting together games like this throughout the course of these playoffs (this was his seventh 30-point game), not to mention the past three regular seasons when the guy led the NBA in scoring. But there are others, fair-weather fans if you will, who are tuning in droves to watch this series — and it isn’t because they want to see Kevin Durant.
They want to see the Heatles, they want to see if LeBron James can redeem himself, they want to see if Dwyane Wade can be as special of a player as he was back in 2006 when it was his show and his show only with the Miami Heat despite the presence of Shaquille O’Neal alongside him.
The Heat is the team folks want to see and want to hate, but a funny thing happened as those folks reached for another bottle of Haterade on Tuesday night. What was mesmerizing in this fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the display of talent put on by Durant, who had taken only 10 shots by the time two minutes remained in the third quarter, then took 10 more over the final 14 minutes and knocked down a majority of them en route to scoring 36 points in his NBA Finals debut.
And here’s the thing that is going to kill Miami in this series: The guy simply cannot be defended. He is too tall, too long, too pure of a shooter and too athletic of a penetrator to be stopped by anything other than being knocked on his ass over and over and over again, which is what we should probably expect to see from the Miami Heat in Game 2 on Thursday night.
The play that stuck in my mind after attending Game 1 was a drive to the basket by Durant early in the fourth quarter with Oklahoma City holding a four-point lead. Durant drove to his right and cut diagonally through the lane with longer strides than most thoroughbreds, finishing the move by extending the ball out of the reach of defender Shane Battier and converting the bucket off the backboard.
It gave Durant 30 points, it gave the Thunder a six-point lead, it raised the decibel level to unhealthy heights, and it was such a display of pure athleticism and quickness, it was breathtaking. The bucket gave Durant 11 points in the fourth quarter when there were still more than 5 minutes remaining (James had just two points in the quarter at that moment), and the game got away from the Heat at that very moment.
Shane Battier missed a 3, Durant came downcourt and nailed a 20-footer, James missed a fadeaway three and Russell Westbrook drilled a jumper.
Bang, bang, bang, and it was a 10-point game.
“That’s what they do, they keep on coming. They’re relentless,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They beat us at their game and beat us in a game that’s very similar to us when we’re playing well.”
And although Miami got back within six, their body language after that particular flurry by the Thunder was like watching the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals all over again. The Heat were slumped over, frowning, all but defeated.
As I said earlier, this is the first extended look at Durant that many folks around the country and the world are getting. He is a superstar that doesn’t fit into the usual superstar mold. He is not a narcissist. He is humble and charismatic. He is friendly. He is not scandalous. He is genuine, even if he sometimes comes of as a little boring (at least he’s not of the same ilk as Tim Duncan in that department.)
I’d give you the best Durant quote here if there was one, but there wasn’t anything better than “It took us a couple minutes to get the nervousness out of us and the jitters out. Next game we’ve got to start a little better because this team is going to come out extremely hard.” If his post-game press conference was notable for one thing, it was the latest crazy multi-colored shirt and red eyeglasses that teammate Russell Westbrook was wearing sitting alongside Durant, who was geek-chic’d himself with a thin black tie and thick black eyeglasses.
These guys do fashion statements and basketball statements, not sound-bite statements.
The trouble with that above Durant quote was that Miami did come out extremely hard, with Shane Battier knocking down three 3-pointers in the first six minutes before Spoelstra decided that was the perfect time to sit him and sub Mike Miller into the game. The Heat maintained a lead for the entire first half, but the Thunder drew ever closer as the third quarter wore on — much like they did in Game 6 of their last series against the Spurs, and then came the fourth quarter when the better of the two dynamic duos, Durant and Westbrook, made James and Wade look positively pedestrian.
The Heat are in trouble, folks, because they may not have the best player in this series. That’s not a shot at LeBron, it’s more of an acknowledgement of where Kevin Durant is at this stage of his career.
Which leads me to the story I promised my Twitter followers as the buzzer sounded.
Two years ago, I was with Westbrook, Durant and Team USA in Turkey when they were playing a first-round game against Slovenia in the World Championship, Durant was en fuego over the first five minutes and quickly gave the Americans a 10-point lead. But at that 5-minute mark of the first quarter, coach Mike Krzyzewski subbed Durant out. The margin stayed right around 10 for the rest of the game, and in the post-game press conference I asked Coach K why he had taken Durant out? He said he did it because he was trying to win a marathon, not a sprint. But a week and a half later when we were discussing where he was on the day of the infamous US-USSR game at the 1972 Munich Olympics (Krzyzewski was in South Korea as a member of the Army), Kryzyewski pulled me aside and told me “You know what? When you asked my why I pulled Kevin Durant, it made me think. And after I thought about it, I realized that I really can’t take this guy out of any game — ever, unless we’re on our way to a blowout. He’s just too good, and he’s just too valuable to this team.”
And as noted before, folks who are now getting their first extended look at Durant are beginning to realize what Krzyzewski realized in Turkey.
This guy is just too damn good.
And if Miami doesn’t figure out a way to outscore Durant’s team (because they aren’t going to find a way to stop Durant from scoring), this is going to be another long summer of self-reflection for the Miami Heat.
Chris Sheridan is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every NBA Finals since 1994, with the exception of 2011(DNP-Litigiousness), and every Olympics since 1996. Follow him on Twitter.