Kevin Durant’s reward is another trip to the Western Conference finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The league MVP made the most foolish headline in recent newspaper history look even worse Thursday night with a spectacular 39-point performance, propelling the Thunder into a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs for a spot in the NBA finals.
While Russell Westbrook struggled and Oklahoma City’s role players foundered, Durant carried his teammates through Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Durant accounted for nearly half of their points with buckets or assists as the Thunder finally finished off their mentally exhausted second-round opponents, 104-98.
Durant also had a season-high 16 rebounds, and he might have to do even more when the Thunder visit San Antonio for Game 1 on Monday night. He’s confident Oklahoma City is capable of getting past the West’s No. 1 seeds with teamwork sprouting from years of playoff runs.
“Experience has helped us out a lot, just being with each other for so long,” Durant said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We definitely can get better. This is definitely a series that pushed us to the brink. We were in a tough spot. We stayed together and persevered.”
When the Thunder were down by 16 points and struggling to make any shot early in Game 6, they looked all but ready to fold up and head home for a series-deciding finale.
Instead, Westbrook overcame a slow start to finish with 19 points and 12 assists as the Thunder reached the conference finals for the third time in four years, closing out Los Angeles with two straight wins.
Two days after the Thunder erased a late 13-point deficit to win Game 5, the Thunder rallied from that early deficit and maintained their lead throughout the fourth quarter, shaking off any memories of their Game 4 collapse on the same Staples Center court.
“I thought tonight’s game was something that we’ve done all year,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We’ve all stuck together and found ways to win.”
Durant hit five 3-pointers and Reggie Jackson added 14 points for Oklahoma City, which will face the Spurs in a rematch of the West’s last two champions. The Thunder eliminated San Antonio in six games in 2012.
“Both teams are really good,” Brooks said. “Both teams play hard. Both teams have great experience, so it’s going to be a great series.”
Oklahoma swept the Spurs 4-0 during the regular season.
The Clippers led for almost every minute of the first three quarters, but Durant kept the Thunder close and eventually ignited a 30-10 run stretching across the final two quarters. Westbrook, who didn’t have a field goal until late in the third quarter, contributed 10 points in the fourth as the Thunder comfortably maintained their lead.
“We did a great job of sticking together,” Westbrook said. “Kevin did a great job of setting his guys up, getting the ball in spots that were effective.”
Blake Griffin fouled out with 2:27 left, but the Clippers got within four points in the final minute before Westbrook and Durant hit free throws to close it out.
“Oklahoma City absolutely deserves it,” said Chris Paul, who had 25 points and 11 assists. “We have a really good team, a great team. It’s crazy. You play all season long, and the last few games, we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it’s crazy that it’s over.”
The loss ended a tumultuous postseason for the Clippers, who managed to win a seven-game series with Golden State in the first round even while owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life for racist comments exposed during that series.
Oklahoma City smoothly secured its spot in the conference finals after these teams traded spectacular collapses in the last two games. The Thunder blew a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 4 at Staples Center, but the Clippers responded by blowing a 13-point lead in the final four minutes in Oklahoma City.