If there's one silver lining for basketball fans to extract from Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury, it's that we now have the opportunity to see Kevin Durant attempt to become something he's never had to be before: a transcendent superstar trying to singlehandedly pull his team through the playoffs, one virtuoso performance at at time.
After taking a few games to adjust to his lonelier existence during the Houston series, it appears that Durant is ready to rise to the challenge of carrying the Thunder on his back. In Game 1 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series, Durant put on a quintessential superstar performance. He spent the first three quarters pacing his team to the tune of 23 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists, but it wasn't until the fourth quarter began—with his team down 73-64—that Durant's performance shifted from great to transcendent.
Durant put a stranglehold on the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points, grabbing four rebounds, and dishing three assists while rallying his team to a 93-91 victory. He scored six of his team's last seven baskets while sinking a variety of impossible-to-defend layups and jumpers. Most impressive of all, though, was how little hesitation Durant showed while taking over. Every time he got his hands on the ball he just let loose, allowing his instincts and infinitely long limbs to take over and win the game for his team. He never stopped to think over that stretch of time. He just played.
We've seen Durant hit teams with scoring barrages before, but we're used to seeing those shots interrupted or bookended by flashs of brilliance or thickheadedness from Russell Westbrook. But now we get to see what happens when Durant is really allowed to stretch out and play the game entirely on his own terms.
The video above is a super slow-motion shot of Durant's go-ahead jumper that came with 11 seconds left in the 4th quarter. The shot itself is remarkable, but so is everything leading up to it. Durant grabs the loose ball and immediately lopes down the court, his face never showing even a brief moment of panic or hesitation. He forgoes the timeout, and with his team's fate entirely in his hands, he throws a hesitation dribble at Tayshaun Prince before rising up and hitting the jumper with startling ease. It was the kind of shot that a Division I-bound high school kid would casually take while toying with his overmatched opponents, and here was Durant doing it in the final moments of an NBA playoff game. This is what Durant as a lone gunman looks like: a cold-blooded giant playing amongst children.
If the Thunder are going to go anywhere without Russell Westbrook, it's going to be because Durant continues to play as easy, free, and dominant as he did during yesterday's fourth quarter. If he does, we're all going to be treated to quite a show.