Kevin Durant was going to get the glory as long as his knuckleball floater found net. Somehow, it did, bouncing through the hoop with 1.5 seconds left to give the Oklahoma City Thunder a one-point victory in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks.
The headlines wrote themselves.
"Durant's winner lifts Thunder past Mavs, 99-98," announced the headline of the story that came over the wire by The Associated Press.
"Durant gets late winner," declared the sports teaser on the cover of The Norman Transcript.
"Thunder Storms Back to Take Game 1," shouted the front page of The Oklahoman, over a photo of a jumping, joyous Durant.
Durant's shot was indeed worthy of celebration and gave us reason to recall Allan Houston's similar front-rim, glass, net game-winner in Game 5 against the Heat in 1999. Taking the final shot takes guts, and Durant would have been subject to second-guessing had he missed, so he was entitled to the glory for hitting it.
One of the biggest heroes for the Thunder, though, was little more than a speck in the background of the triumphant photos, if he was shown at all. Kendrick Perkins, who for most of the game shared time with Serge Ibaka guarding Dirk Nowitzki, covered the Mavericks' high-scoring forward almost exclusively in the closing minutes. Perkins got burnt a couple of times, but he mostly kept one of the game's great closers from getting easy shots, contributing to the Thunder outscoring the Mavericks 15-11 in the final 4:22 of the game.
Although the league is maligned by casual fans for being tilted in favor of offense, the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs was ruled, as the playoffs always are, by defense. Perkins' expert work against Nowitzki followed Glen Davis' stubborn battle for positioning with Pacers 7-foot-2 behemoth Roy Hibbert in Orlando's surprise win. That performance preceded the Lakers' Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum shutting down the paint against the Nuggets.
In Miami, LeBron James made jaws drop with his 32 points, but he was able to take a seat for the entire final 12 minutes because, for three quarters, he was omnipresent on defense. The Knicks' field goal percentage in the game crashed to 31.8 percent when James was on the floor (compared to 42.3 percent when he was off the court), and their turnover ratio shot upward to 29 turnovers per 100 possessions against James. That number more than cut in half to 13 turnovers per 100 possessions when James took a rest.
While most of the series openers went according to seeding, the least shocking aspect was not the final scores but that the better defensive team consistently came out on top. Of the 12 teams that held opponents to the lowest field goal percentage this season, 11 are in the playoffs. Meanwhile, two of the league's best shooting teams, Phoenix and Golden State, are sitting out the postseason because they did not defend well enough to earn a berth.
James and the Heat may have received an inordinate number of questionable calls — Tyson Chandler certainly seemed to think so. But Knicks coach Mike Woodson explained his team's drubbing best when he said, "They punched us in the mouth." Across the playoff landscape, the teams that took out their aggression defensively were quietly taking pleasure in their 1-0 leads, and that set the tone for another postseason that will end with defense winning the championship.
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