By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: Spurs-Thunder Game 6 preview
OKLAHOMA CITY — The MVP was asked if he’s put his imprint on the Western Conference finals.
“You know, it [is] a different series compared to the first two, whereas you’ve got to beat this team with a group of guys,” Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant said. “Against the Clippers, me and Russell [Westbrook], we came out and scored 40 points a piece and [were] able to win, but this team makes you play with everybody. We knew that.
“You’ve got to do it on both ends of the floor. I feel like I put my imprint on the series. It may not be in the usual way that people expect me to go out and score 40 a game, but I think I put my imprint on the series.”
As Durant and the Thunder head into Saturday’s do-or-die Game 6 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Durant is correct in that he doesn’t have to score 40 and he shouldn’t feel burdened to carry the team by dominating the ball. Against the precision and depth of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City needs a focused team effort to survive.
But if the Thunder wants to see June, they must have their leader thrust himself to the forefront of the effort. He must attack with an unrivaled determination and desire to win the game, to put forth a LeBron James foot-on-the-throat performance a la Friday night’s elimination of the Pacers. Afterward, budding Indiana star Paul George said of James: “He really just sunk his teeth all over this game.”
He needs to heed the catch-phrase of one of his two favorite players, Dirk Nowitzki, and “let it rip.” Nowitzki is the last player to win a Game 7 in San Antonio.
Durant seemingly hasn’t simply let it rip throughout this postseason. He’s left us to ponder at times if he’s even having fun. When momentum has turned against OKC, he’s become visibly frustrated. His body language has become unusually slumped, and after losses his postgame demeanor at the podium has shown shades of immaturity, a trait that seems to have replaced unbridled optimism from a player who just three weeks ago delivered one of the most impassioned MVP speeches of all time.
He’s even established a mantra to soften the blow of losing.
“I’ve learned not to let basketball take over my life,” Durant says.
But if he wants another shot at the championship, if he wants to knock the old-guard Spurs out of the way as he did in 2012, Durant must take over Game 6 with a steel-clad will to win.
“I’ve seen the best of the best not perform well statistically in the biggest games of the year, but their passion, their effort, just their desire to win was higher than everybody else’s,” said five-time champion Derek Fisher, his jersey No. 6 emblematic of his chase of a sixth ring. “And so Kevin doesn’t have to show up and score 40 points and have MVP numbers against them, but we need everybody to show up just with the desire to win that is stronger than our opponents’.
“We won’t necessarily have to ask for anything else but that.”
Durant has answered the call in back-against-the-wall moments in these playoffs. He scored 36 and 33 points in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis in the first round. In a must-win Game 6 on the road, Durant went to the free-throw line 15 times, a barometer of his determination to be the aggressor.
He hit huge baskets down the stretch of Game 5 against the Clippers when the Thunder flipped defeat into a pivotal victory with a dominant final three minutes. And he was excellent in the final three quarters of the Game 6 clincher in Los Angeles.
In this series, Durant’s offensive production — 24.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting (36.0 percent from 3-point range), 3.4 assists and 6.0 free-throw attempts — appears low, but those numbers are somewhat diluted by the blowout nature of all five games. There hasn’t been a fourth quarter that’s mattered and Durant has averaged just 6.7 minutes in the final period.
His true imprint on this series has come on the defensive end in the Thunder’s two wins. OKC is at its best when he’s crisp and alert, using his length and quickness to seal off entry passes into the paint yet still able to close out on 3-point shooters like Danny Green.
So now here he is at Saturday’s crossroads, the Thunder’s leader and the league’s MVP, one win away from forcing a Game 7 and a potential rematch against LeBron and the Heat; one loss away from going home unfulfilled.
“I’ve always been the guy that’s going to bring it, and that’s going to play to win,” Durant said. “So it’s a must‑win, and I can’t sit home and think about it every single minute of the day, but I’ve got to know how important it is.”
Game 6 is all about leaving his imprint, sinking his teeth into it and letting it rip.
The points will follow.