As the announcer welcomed the Sonics to Madison Square Garden, and players jogged onto the famed court, an unfamiliar patter thumped inside...
NEW YORK — As the announcer welcomed the Sonics to Madison Square Garden, and players jogged onto the famed court, an unfamiliar patter thumped inside Kevin Durant’s chest.
His racing heart.
The rookie has played at the Garden before, defeating St. John’s and losing to Michigan State while playing for Texas in a tournament last year. But this was different. The Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month has been highlighted by the NBA, even though he insists he’s not the “featured player” on the Sonics’ roster.
Still, he wanted to leave an impression. So he tried to use the early butterflies to his advantage and led his team offensively in a 117-110 NBA victory over the struggling New York Knicks in front of 17,637.
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“I was very nervous. I haven’t been this nervous since the first game of the year,” said Durant, who was also in awe Tuesday at the Chicago’s United Center, where basketball idol Michael Jordan starred. “Right before we went out, my heart was beating real fast. I think that was a good vibe coming into this game.”
Like a train picking up speed, the Sonics finally began to roll in the second half. Durant scored seven of his nine fourth-quarter points in the final 4:18 to help the Sonics outscore the Knicks 22-16 and build a six-point lead.
Durant, who finished with a game-high 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting from the field, highlighted the stretch with an unexpected dunk on New York forward David Lee. He went in for what looked like a layup, then slammed it home, drawing a collective “oh!” from fans.
“I was a little surprised there,” Sonics center Kurt Thomas said. “I’ve seen him do that a lot in practice. But to do it in the flow of the game and to do it in the Garden is definitely nice.”
Even more than Durant’s Big Apple debut, the Sonics wanted to see if they could correct some glaring problems from the opening two matchups of the five-game road trip.
Their improving defense began to waffle in the opening half of the 91-88 loss to New Orleans on Sunday and sunk to new lows in a 123-96 loss to Chicago on Tuesday.
Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo said he didn’t know if he needed to change rotations or if the players would correct the problem themselves. The latter happened, although it wasn’t perfect. The Sonics were outrebounded 47-36 and outscored 66-48 inside by the Knicks (6-15).
“We made some mistakes as far as letting Zach Randolph sit in the lane,” said Durant of the Knicks forward who finished with 27 points. “Myself, I didn’t help the bigs [inside players]as much as I should have, and we didn’t rotate as well. But toward the fourth quarter we cracked down on that and got some charges.”
Carlesimo did alter his rotation. He played Mickael Gelabale more at point guard and played Chris Wilcox and Damien Wilkins limited minutes because reserves Jeff Green and Nick Collison had strong games.
The result was a true team win. Four Sonics bench players scored in double figures, led by Green’s 17 points on 7-for-14 shooting from the field. Green, who played numerous games at the Garden while starring for nearby Georgetown, was also solid on defense, blocking Seattle native Jamal Crawford’s dunk attempt in the final quarter.
“I just didn’t want to get dunked on,” Green said. “I tried to throw my left hand up there and I got the block.
“This is a good win. We just told each other that we had each other’s back still after the Bulls loss. That game is over with and we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to continue to get better and not worry about the past.”
The Sonics (6-17) conclude the trip with back-to-back games against Minnesota on Friday and Utah on Saturday.
“We still weren’t getting stops,” said Carlesimo, whose zone defense was occasionally effective against New York. “We basically won with offense, we didn’t win with defense. It would be nice to get some stops and get some rebounds.
“Our bench was great. … I could say good things about a lot of guys on the team.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org