Kevin Durant wouldn’t let home court advantage slip away Saturday night.
Facing the defending champion Mavericks, the same team that knocked out Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals a year ago, the Thunder needed its superstar to deliver a clutch shot.
Dallas was in control of the contest throughout the night and even carried a seven point advantage with just 2:30 remaining in the contest.
The Mavericks wouldn’t make a shot from the field the rest of the way, while Durant drained the most important basket of his career.
A pair of free throws from Dirk Nowitzki restored the Dallas lead to 98-97 with nine seconds remaining.
Durant received the pass near the Thunder logo at midcourt and drove right. From the wing, he spun around Marion and raced to the foul line and with four seconds remaining, fired a 15-footer off the front of the rim.
Sometimes, even the three-time reigning scoring champion needs a fortunate bounce.
The ball hit off the backboard and fell through the net with 1.5 seconds left.
With one more opportunity to seize early control of the series and out of timeouts, the Mavericks quickly threw the ball to Marion but his midcourt heave came after the buzzer, giving the Thunder a 1-0 series advantage.
Entering the season, there were rumors of a power struggle between Durant and Westbrook for control of the team.
Even after pouring in a game-high 28 points Saturday, with seven coming in the fourth quarter, Westbrook had no qualms about deferring, even after Durant missed five attempts in the final period.
For Durant, it was the second time he snatched a victory away from Dallas in the final seconds this season.
Only his foul line shot was one of the few that did bounce in Saturday night.
Durant finished with 25 points on 10-of-27 shooting from the field but his shot at the end of the game was a major step forward.
Prior to the playoff opener, Durant was 4-of-18 on potential go-ahead shots in the final five seconds over the past two years.
His dribble attack displayed a new confidence, something the Thunder will need if it wants to eliminate Dallas.
Nowitzki almost provided the Mavericks with a victory by himself. 11 of his 25 points came in the fourth quarter but nearly all of his points were negated by an unexpected offensive outburst from his Oklahoma City counterpart.
In 66 games this season, Ibaka had only taken, and made, one shot from beyond the arc and his regular season-high was 20 points against Houston.
Ibaka provided his usual defensive prowess, blocking five shots along with six rebounds, a steal and an assist.
Dallas was unable to put together a consistent offensive attack outside of Nowitzki late in the game.
Jason Terry, the dynamic scorer off the bench during last season’s championship run, finished with 20 points, but none in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder are still searching for reliable scoring outside of its usual threats. James Harden, Ibaka, Westbrook and Durant scored all by five points for Oklahoma City last night.
Maintaing home court advantage has to be a top priority for the Thunder. With a 26-7 record at Chesapeake Energy Arena this season, Oklahoma City is tied with the Bulls and Lakers for the second best home record, trailing only San Antonio.
After allowing the top record in the league slip away with a 7-7 record to close out the season, letting Dallas take the series opener wasn’t an option for the Thunder.
Durant knocked down the shot that mattered most, when his team was at its most desperate point.
Before the start of the post season, Durant was featured in an ESPN commercial sitting in the rafters where championship banners hang, proclaiming the Thunder were make a statement.
After Saturday night, the Thunder is just 15 wins away and Durant made a very loud opening statement.