HOUSTON — It was 44 years ago when Don Nelson’s foul-line jumper kicked improbably high off the back of the rim, fell right down through the net and kept all of those celebration balloons trapped up there at the ceiling in the Forum.
That was an ending.
Nelson’s shot gave the Celtics the two-point margin they needed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for another championship over the Lakers.
Kevin Durant’s shot with 41.9 seconds left on the clock took Nelson’s little tap dance on the rim and turned it into an entire chorus production. The first bounce kicked so high off the back of the rim that it cleared the top of the backboard, then teasingly hit the front rim and then the back rim two more times before sliding down into the basket, a Tibetan prayer wheel offering that was answered immediately.
This was just a beginning.
Before the Thunder get to jubilantly race off a court somewhere to celebrate a championship, there will likely have to be many more nights like this, where they sizzle and fizzle, where they thrive and survive, where they just grind on.
It was the first time in five years — and 440 games — that Durant ran out onto a basketball court wearing an Oklahoma City jersey without running mate and buddy Russell Westbrook at his side.
The lightning rod point guard was back at home watching on TV after having undergone surgery Saturday to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. That means the road to the top of the mountain just got far bumpier and more treacherous.
“It feels the same,” Durant said. “I just go out there on the court, and I knew I had to give it my all no matter what. That’s what I’m going to do for however many games we have to play…I’m going to give it my all no matter what and not worry about missed shot, turnovers or anything.”
But Durant knows that the margin for error just got slimmer than a supermodel’s waist. No more nights when Westbrook and all of his inherent idiosyncrasies and flaws will be able to bail out the Thunder with his bodacious talent and his sheer audacity.
Now there will be far more nights like this one where wilo-’o-the-wisp Durant has to go the virtual distance, getting all of 44 seconds to rest on the bench while putting up 30 shots to equal his career playoff high of 41 points.
Now there will be more nights when the Thunder will have to rely on the combo of second-year Reggie Jackson and 17th year Derek Fisher to hold down Westbrook’s position at the point.
Now there will be more nights when Serge Ibaka has to be the leaping, dominating monster at both ends of the floor with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two official blocked shots and about a dozen more altered.
The Thunder built a 26-point lead early in the third quarter and had to hold on to the final tick of the clock because they’re now missing one of the legs they usually stand on.
“It definitely was an emotional time the last 48 hours,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We all love what Russell is about. The guy has probably the biggest heart I’ve ever been around. He’s done a great job of putting us in this position.”
But now the season-ending injury puts the Thunder in the position of having to, if not reinvent themselves on the fly, at least make a major adjustment. So here they are against an inexperienced No. 8 seed in Houston — the youngest team in the NBA this season — getting burns on the palms of their hands as the rope slips through.
If it wasn’t a case of being physically spent, then OKC had to be mentally exhausted from battling all night to fill in the gaps. Brooks had said before the game that it’s just a matter of getting everybody to do “a little bit.”
However, in playoff games that little bit can become a quite heavy lift.
There were the Rockets, playing with few expectations and not much to lose, roaring back. Here was picking up a loose ball that Kevin Martin seemed to lose as the shot-clock ran down and Ibaka flicking it up over his head and off the glass with 1:25 left in the game. Here was the untested-in-the-playoffs Jackson, standing at the foul line and draining two nervy free throws with eight seconds remaining and then leaping up and latching onto the final rebound of the game when Carlos Delfino’s 3-pointer missed just ahead of the horn.
“We learned Russell was going to be out at practice (Friday),” said forward Nick Collison, “but eventually we have to get over it. You have to be able to move on and play. We’re basketball players and we’re in the playoffs and we have to get ourselves ready to play.
“Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court.”
It took the Rockets missing numerous opportunities down the stretch — open shots that clanked off the rim and turnovers that were fatal — for the Thunder to escape.
For a team that entered the playoffs with its sights set strictly on playing all the way into June and getting back to The Finals, now each game, every day, each ensuing round will be a challenge.
They will need to learn to get by without the nonpareil talents of Westbrook to pull them out of the fire, get things done with pure execution or enough similar fortuitous bounces as Durant’s improbable 3-pointer, a tantalizing dance-of-the-seven-veils shot that pulled them back from the brink of what could have been a crushing defeat, giving birth to recrimination and doubt.
“The Lord was with us,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking. I knew as soon as that shot hit the back rim, I was thinking, ‘Not again. Tough 3 shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But it was able to bounce in and all because of the good Lord. I really can’t say too much else about that. I’m glad we made it.”
A happy ending for now. But really just the start of a grind.