THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ORLANDO, Fla. — During his All-Star game MVP performance last week, Kevin Durant made Orlando’s Amway Center his personal playground, scoring at will with a barrage of jump shots and easy open-floor baskets.
The rims weren’t quite as kind early on during the Oklahoma City forward’s return trip, but he got reacquainted with them late and also got help from fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook to help the Thunder pull out a 105-102 victory over the Orlando Magic Thursday night.
Durant scored 38 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, and Westbrook added 29 points and 10 assists as Oklahoma City erased a 14-point deficit to battle back for the win.
Durant’s effort was two points better than his All-Star night and also included five 3-pointers and a 9-for-9 night at the free-throw line — all in a game-high 42 minutes of action. The Thunder’s win was their seventh straight, matching a streak from earlier in the season.
"I was so down on myself. I was really going down after the first quarter," Durant said. "But my coaches and my teammates continued to encourage me and told me they believed in me. It just clicked for me and I started to make a few shots and free throws.
"Once your teammates give you that confidence, no matter what you feel good, and I was able to make some shots."
The Magic had a chance to send it to overtime in the final seconds, but Jason Richardson’s long 3-pointer bounced off the backboard at the buzzer.
It was a fitting culmination of a final 12 minutes for the Magic in which they went just 8 for 25 from the field. The Thunder, who struggled to find shots in the first half, finished 10 for 15 in the final period.
Dwight Howard scored 33 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead all five Magic starters in double figures.
But the Magic dropped to 0-2 against the Thunder this season, following their season-opening loss at Oklahoma City on Christmas night.
Howard said there wasn’t one singular deficiency from his perspective.
"It’s both ends," he said. "We have to be able to execute and get stops. That’s the one thing we didn’t do well tonight in the fourth quarter. But it’s a good lesson for us."
After struggling to keep up with the Thunder during the December loss, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said they would need to limit the Thunder’s opportunities around the rim as well as their free-throw attempts to compete in the rematch.
The Magic did a decent job at both in the first half limiting the Oklahoma City, who entered the game leading the NBA with 960 free-throw attempts, to just seven attempts at the half.
But the Thunder found their way to the stripe in the second half and finished at their season average of 27 attempts. They also clamped down on the Magic’s outside shooting and forced Howard to carry the load, all of which kept Orlando out of rhythm.
"We went small," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I thought that gave us some energy, gave us some juice. I know we would have enough and we did. As the game went on, we got stronger defensively. We got stronger with our intensity."
It resulted in 12 Magic turnovers that produced 12 points for Oklahoma City.
Orlando took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter before turnovers and multiple empty offensive possessions allowed the Thunder to surge to a 93-89 lead with 3:22 to play.
Jameer Nelson’s 3-pointer pulled the Magic within 96-94 before Durant’s fifth 3 of the night pushed it back to 99-94.
After a badly missed jumper by Kendrick Perkins, Nelson kept the Magic’s momentum going and found Howard for an alley-oop.
But Durant stayed hot with a 19-foot jumper that quickly stilled the crowd.
Ryan Anderson banked in a 3 in the closing seconds and Daequan Cook missed a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds left to set up Richardson’s last heave.
"There’s no chance to run when your defence is as bad as ours was in the fourth — it’s going to hurt your offence," Van Gundy said. "The two go hand-in-hand, but we just literally didn’t play any defence whatsoever in the fourth quarter."
It was the Magic who were hot in the opening 24 minutes and took 53-50 lead into the break.
Orlando held as much as a nine-point edge, shooting 55 per cent (21 for 38) in the half and connecting on six 3s. The Thunder shot 48 per cent (20 for 41), but the Magic also limited them to nine fast break points while holding a 24-20 advantage on points in the paint.
It helped offset Westbrook’s 17 first-half points, with Anderson pacing the Magic with 10 points.
"We’re getting better, man, we’re getting better," Durant said. "Playing against a great team like this at their place. Being down 11 going into the fourth. We could have easily just given in. But we kept playing, kept fighting, and guys made plays. It’s a big time win for us."
Notes: The Thunder improved to a Western Conference-best 14-6 on the road this season. … Magic F Quentin Richardson sat out his second straight game with a strained left Achilles tendon. … Orlando was the first NBA city to celebrate a Noche Latina (Latin Night) game on Thursday. The Magic wore special El Magic jerseys to coincide with several other Latin-themed arena activities. Six other NBA cities will have Noche Latina throughout the month.