By Jeff Latzke/The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant followed his worst playoff performance with one of his best, taking the Oklahoma City Thunder from the brink of elimination to the Western Conference finals.
Durant scored 39 points for his best offensive outing of the series, Russell Westbrook became the fifth NBA player to record a triple-double in a Game 7 and the Thunder closed out the Memphis Grizzlies with a 105-90 win on Sunday.
“Durant came back after a sub-par game and showed the heart of a champion,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “And Westbrook just played outstanding.”
Durant was a shell of himself in Game 6, the lowest-scoring game of his two postseason appearances. He routinely settled for jumpers, taking nine of his 14 shots from 3-point range, and had just one basket over the final 45 minutes during an 11-point outing.
“That wasn’t me at all in Game 6. I was so upset with myself that I kind of let my guys down by not playing my game,” Durant said. “No matter what, if I was shooting bad in Game 6, as long as I was aggressive. I wasn’t aggressive at all. This game, that’s what I told myself: ‘Come in aggressive, start the game off aggressive.’”
With Oklahoma City’s season on the line, the two-time All-Star who led the NBA in scoring the past two seasons was back at his best.
He heated up in the second quarter after an entertaining exchange with his mother, put the Thunder in control late in the third, then put it away with a pair of two-handed slams in the fourth.
“Durant is a special player, one of the best players in the NBA,” said Memphis star Zach Randolph, who was limited to an inefficient 17 points and 10 rebounds. “The kid is a gym-rat, he works hard. He’s one of my favorite players. You’ve got to give him kudos and give him respect.
“You see what he does night in and night out and he’s just relentless.”
The franchise is back in the West finals for the first time since 1996, when it was known as the SuperSonics and based in Seattle. That year, the Sonics moved on to the NBA finals before losing to Chicago.
Game 1 against the Mavericks is Tuesday night in Dallas.
Westbrook, criticized throughout the playoffs for taking too many shots, was at his all-around best with 14 points, matching his season-high with 14 assists and producing extra possessions with 10 rebounds. According to information provided to the team by the Elias Sports Bureau, the only others with a Game 7 triple-double are Larry Bird, Jerry West, James Worthy and Scottie Pippen.
“He gets picked on a little bit, but one of the things (with) Russell, he keeps playing,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He keeps improving, he keeps getting better and tonight he controlled the game.”
Mike Conley scored 18 points to lead Memphis, which had never won a playoff game before this year and made a bid to become the first No. 8 seed to reach the West finals.
“It takes a special effort to win on the road in Game 7. It just does,” Memphis forward Shane Battier said. “We didn’t have that special effort.”
James Harden added four 3-pointers and 17 points for Oklahoma City, and Nick Collison had 12 rebounds.
O.J. Mayo scored 14 for Memphis but couldn’t provide the same amount of room for Randolph as he did after moving into the starting lineup in Game 6.
It was the first Game 7 of the 2011 playoffs, and the first in the career for Durant and most other players on two of the NBA’s rising teams. They were the two youngest rosters in the league at the start of last season, but have quickly become two of the best — just as some of the traditional powerhouses have declined.
“I think that age is kind of out the window now. Usually, you hear young franchise. Now, we’ve grown up together and we’re getting better,” Westbrook said.
“I think as long as we continue to stay humble and continue to work and try to get better, this team’s going to make that next jump.”
The first jumps have been big ones for the Thunder — from 3-29 and headed for the worst season in NBA history after moving to Oklahoma City in 2008 to the West finals just 2½ years later.
Durant came out aggressively but off-target, making just two of nine shots in the first quarter, and Memphis led by as many as five early on.
The Grizzlies then missed 18 of 23 shots over a stretch between the midway points of the first and second quarters. The Thunder took advantage with a 13-4 run to finish the first quarter with a 21-17 edge, then extended their lead with an unexpected spark in the second.
Arena camera crews caught Durant’s mother pumping her fist in the air and dancing at her courtside seat during a timeout, and the scoring champ got a kick out of it from across the court. He came out and hit a jumper in the lane and his first 3-pointer from the right side during a 9-0 burst that gave Oklahoma City its first double-digit lead at 33-23.
He also hit his next two shots — another 3 and a layup off a Westbrook alley-oop — to bump the lead to 11 before Conley’s 3-pointer pulled Memphis to 42-34 at halftime.
Randolph led the Grizzlies back, and Conley’s 3-pointer cut it to 52-49 with 4:52 left before Durant got going again.
Durant scored eight points — including two 3-pointers — during a 14-2 spurt that put the Thunder back in control. After his second 3, he ran screaming to the opposite end of the court and slapped hands with former Oklahoma City player Desmond Mason, who was seated courtside.
Durant added a free throw after Hollins’ technical foul, and the Thunder led 66-51 with 1:24 to go in the third.
Notes: Home teams are 86-21 in Game 7s in NBA history, and 58-14 since the ABA-NBA merger before the 1976-77 season. … The Thunder had been 5-8 at home on Sundays in the regular season and playoffs, and 30-4 on all other days. … Gary Payton had the only two other postseason triple-doubles in the Thunder’s franchise history, dating to the team’s days in Seattle.