Dallas At Oklahoma City, Game 2, 9:30 p.m. EDT
The opportunity to attempt a shot and win a game used to make Kevin Durant so jittery he couldn’t sit still.
With the game on the line, he’d find himself literally shaking as he sat on the bench in late-game timeouts with the ball about to come his way.
Then he found a way to take the edge off: He had to stop caring quite so much.
Durant said he decided to try the new mindset after he watched an interview featuring seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry last offseason during which the player known as “Big Shot Rob” talked about taking the pressure off himself in that fashion.
“He made some big shots in some big moments,” Durant said. “So, I just tried to take that approach.”
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Durant opened this postseason by hitting a foul-line jumper with 1.5 seconds left to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 99-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of their first-round series.
“I was calm,” Durant said after Oklahoma City’s practice on Sunday. “I had some success getting to the rim a little bit in the fourth, so I just tried to put my head down and go. But Shawn Marion did a great job of cutting me off. I work on that spin back all the time, and I just tried to get to my spot and take a good shot.
“If I’d have missed it, then I’d have had to walk off the court and deal with it and learn from it. But I’m glad I made it.”
It gave the Thunder the early edge in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals that Dallas won 4-1.
Game 2 is Monday night in Oklahoma City.
Despite being the league’s three-time scoring champion and among the most productive players in the fourth quarter, Durant is only now developing his reputation as a closer.
He had just two buzzer-beating winners in his four-year career before hitting a 3-pointer to beat Dallas in the fourth game of the regular season last December. There was a reason.
“My first few years in the league, I would go to the bench and we’d be tied up with a couple seconds left and I’d be, like, shaking,” Durant said. “I was so anxious to want the shot and make the shot, and I’d go out and miss.”
Then he came across the interview with Horry, who won two NBA titles with Houston, three with the Los Angeles Lakers and two with San Antonio while becoming best known for his dramatic shots in the playoffs. It proved to be inspirational.
“I’ve learned that it might take you 12, 13 misses to just make one,” Durant said. “It might go like that. I learned that everything’s a process and even with taking late-game shots, you’re going to have to miss a few to make some. I’ve missed my fair share and hopefully if it comes around again, I make it.”
His approach now? “To be honest, I really don’t care if I make it or miss,” he said. “You really can’t think about it too much.”
“I just go back to the bench with nothing on my mind,” he added.
Durant’s clutch shot turned the tables from last year’s West finals, when it was Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki who dominated fourth-quarter play and averaged 11.8 points in the final period.
Nowitzki had 11 of his 25 points in the final 5 minutes of Game 1, at one point going on a personal 7-1 run to put the Mavericks up by seven. The Thunder then sent an extra player at Nowitzki to get the ball out of his hands and were successful in forcing two key turnovers during their comeback.
“It’s a big gamble,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “People don’t give him credit for this: He’s one of the best passing bigs when defenders are converging on him. He sees, because they have great spacing and they have great 3-point shooters. It could have easily backfired.”
Having witnessed Durant’s most recent game-winner, Nowitzki was hardly surprised to see it happen again.
“He’s already a clutch player,” Nowitzki said. “He makes as much, when he gets the opportunity, as even the best of them. He had one early in the season against us when they were down two. He had another one (Saturday night).”
Perhaps Durant’s biggest late-game struggle, other than overcoming anxiety, has been shot selection. Because of his nearly 7-foot frame, he’ll occasionally settle for a step-back 3-pointer that’s nearly impossible to defend. But it’s also not the highest percentage shot.
Brooks had been critical of Durant for settling for a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this month, after Chris Paul’s layup with 8.8 seconds left put Oklahoma City down two.
Nowitzki’s two free throws Saturday night provided Dallas a one-point lead with 9 seconds remaining.
“He made a shot going towards the basket in an aggressive fashion. That’s what we need,” Brooks said. “If he misses that shot, we live with it. We had a chance to get the offensive rebound. But those are the shots that he has to continue to build his game around.”
Durant knows it and is now more willing than ever to brush off the misses that come along with the chances to be a hero.
“I’m still growing,” Durant said. “I know I’m going to take my bumps and bruises but it’s just a matter of me being confident and just going and doing it.”