NEW YORK -- Coming off a disappointing performance against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, a game Kevin Durant described as a "bad loss," the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to be facing another setback to end their four-game trip.
With the New York Knicks without Carmelo Anthony, who sat with a sore knee, the Thunder not only trailed by 11 in the fourth quarter but watched as the Knicks shredded them defensively, scoring 34 points in the first quarter, 29 in the second and 28 in the third.
Something needed to change. So it did.
Kevin Durant scored 22 of his 44 in the fourth quarter and subsequent overtime that he forced with a jumper with 16 seconds left in regulation as the Thunder came back to win 128-122.
It wasn't an emphatic, memorable Madison Square Garden performance, because Durant doesn't really do emphatic. He scores 30 without you noticing, somehow making it seem mundane. Maybe it's because he's not all that impressed himself when he does it.
"I'm really not into how many points I score anymore," Durant said. "I'm just trying to play great basketball and play efficient basketball, and I was pretty cool tonight, but just trying to play good basketball for my team and winning basketball, so I'm really not concerned with the points anymore, how many I score. If I play a good brand of basketball and if I play the right way, that stuff will come, so I just try to look at it that way."
What was on full display Tuesday not only highlighted the difference between a young developing team in the Knicks and one that has been through the fire before in the Thunder, but also why so many teams are falling all over themselves thinking about Durant's future. The past couple days were spent with plenty of speculation running wild about Durant's pending free agency, with Knicks fans fantasizing about nights like Tuesday being a regular thing from No. 35 at MSG.
An innocuous compliment about Kristaps Porzingis led to some connecting of dots. And while Porzingis' flashed his unique skill set with one of his patented putback dunks, springing over seemingly the entire Thunder team, Durant wasn't willing to fawn over that one.
"Two points," he said when asked his thoughts on it.
Still, the feeling from some was that if Durant was really that much of an admirer of Porzingis, then maybe he'd consider the Knicks when the time comes in July. Then again, Durant already plays with a mythological creature. If Porzingis is a unicorn, Russell Westbrook is a werewolf. Durant had his 44, but Westbrook added 30, eight rebounds and 10 assists in 44 jet-fueled minutes, as the raw power of the duo was on full display.
Durant brushed away all the free agency talk off as you'd expect him to, because he says it's about the present, about the now. He's so into what's happening now that he doesn't even let his mind wander with his team down double digits, or worry about the consequences of missing a clutch jumper.
"I mean, what's the worst that could happen? Lose the game?" Durant said. "We play tomorrow. That's how I try to look at it. That's what keeps me calm and keeps me relaxed."
The Thunder won this one, something they've done often this season. They're clearly a top-flight team, owners of the third-best record in basketball. But there's a perceived gap between them and the two in front of them, something they can only close by finding a more consistent level of play, specifically on the defensive end.
"Offense has not been the issue," Billy Donovan said. "These guys have scored points. It's been the defensive consistency of being able to get stops on a regular basis. And some of the stuff, to be honest with you, I really thought were almost self-inflicted wounds."
Those self-inflicted wounds: poor transition defense, biting on pump fakes, silly fouls, lapses in focus on help rotation. It seems like a simple checklist to clean up, but the Thunder continue to struggle with it. They know that unless the defensive disposition changes, they aren't going to reach the standard they've got to get to.
"We've just gotta play with a little bit more passion, I think," Durant said. "It just stems from having a little more enthusiasm, being happy for each other. Just being excited about playing the game of basketball. You play every single day, you practice every single day, the process can get a little boring. I hate to say that, but we have to just stay with it and enjoy the process every single game, and know it's a blessing to play and it's a privilege. Just be grateful. I think that might cover a lot of things, when we just go out there and not get bored with the journey and enjoy every single moment."
That's also Durant's mindset as he navigates through his final season under contract with the Thunder. Don't think too far ahead, don't let your mind wander to what might happen next, because you might miss what's happening now.
Because, despite their flaws, the Thunder can still be special with what they put on the floor every single night. They have the original unicorn in Durant, who handles like a guard and shoots like Larry Bird. And they have Westbrook, who defies most attempts at description. Having those two gives them a chance and contributes to the mindset they had when down 11 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.