The ESPN Box Score merely says, “0:01, 109-111, Kevin Durant makes 12-foot two point shot.” Your eyes see a lanky swingman taking a pull-up fade-away jumper over 3 defenders with menacing ease. Just like that, the Oklahoma City Thunder have beaten the Atlanta Hawks and won their eighth straight game.
The reason watching Kevin Durant play basketball is so awe inspiring, scary, and beautiful all at the same time is that he makes scoring look so effortless. He can drive, post-up, shoot 3’s, and create his own shot. He can shoot from anywhere on the court and can play any of four positions on any given night. He is almost impossible to guard. All of these things have been true for a while, which leads us to the question: What about Kevin Durant is different? Why is he playing better than ever before? After last night’s victory against the Heat, the Thunder have won nine games in a row and Durant has scored more than 30 points in 12 consecutive games.
To understand where Durant has come from and the speed at which he has risen we only have to go back to last years Western Conference semi-finals where the Thunder lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in five games after losing the last four in a row. In all four games, the Thunder had a chance to put the game away and failed to do so. During the last five minutes of the four games that the Thunder lost by an average of less than five points, Kevin Durant went a combined 3-17 from the field, 0-3 from the three-point line and 2-5 from the foul line. After failing to get the job done, for the first time in his career, his list of doubters grew. After Russell Westbrook went out in the first round of the 2013 playoffs with a knee injury, people viewed the series against Memphis as a chance for Durant to show that he could handle the pressure and single handedly lead his team. Durant had always been criticized for ceding too much responsibility to Russell Westbrook. Many people thought that his performance or lack thereof during the Memphis series confirmed that the team had been Westbrook’s all along. It is debatable that up to that point in his career, Durant’s biggest flaw had been his concern for the team and his constant selflessness. Last year Russell Westbrook attempted 1,534 shots and scored 1,903 points. The league’s three time defending scoring champion on the other hand scored almost 400 more points in 100 less attempts than Westbrook.
It impossible to fully explain what Durant is currently doing without analyzing his gaudy statistics. In the month of January, Durant is averaging over 35 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, while shooting over 50 percent from the field. He is ranked first in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) at 31.15, which is more than two points above Lebron James, who is second on the list. What Kevin Durant is doing in Oklahoma City has a magical feel. His play recently has brought fans a feeling of confidence beyond that inspired by mere mortals. Durant’s performance has been transcendent, even Jordan-esque.
This run and overall play this season ranks among one of the best in basketball history. It is the longest streak in the NBA of scoring 30 or more since Tracy McGrady had 14 in a row during the 2002-03 season. He is on pace to be the first person, since Michael Jordan in 1991-92, to average at least 30 points and five assists all while shooting above 50 percent from the field. Not bad company to find yourself in.
Beyond the statistics, numbers and streaks, watching Kevin Durant play basketball has been a privilege. Durant’s performances these past few weeks rank in the top five greatest NBA moments I have had the luck to see live. It only ranks below watching The Black Mamba drop 81 on the Toronto Raptors in January of 2006, a month in which he averaged 43.4 points a game, and ranks alongside the Heat’s 27 game winning streak last year and a little bit ahead of Linsanity and Ray Allen’s Game 6 shot. As a basketball fan, and an occasional recreational player, it is impossible not to appreciate how easy Durant makes the game of basketball look. A lot of people who have played basketball are talented, but there has never been someone with the package of skills that Durant has. Michael Jordan wasn’t as tall or long. Kobe and Lebron don’t have the same touch or range on their shots. Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Karl Malone, the top two scorers of all time, lacked Durant’s range and ball handling ability. Simply put, Kevin Durant has the ability to be the greatest scorer of all time and he is just starting to jump to the next level.
Durant has always been a superstar, but he has never shown us his extra gear. Durant’s anger may be the key to his newfound dominance. If you watch Kevin Durant play these days he is playing with more fire and urgency than ever before. He has a chip on his shoulder and is out to prove something. Against Golden State, when he dropped 54, he had 15 in the fourth quarter hit three pull up three pointers all in a span of 75 seconds. Two games later against Portland, after he received a technical for slamming his hand against the scorer’s table, Durant scored 11 of his 46 points in the finals 3:23 to bring the Thunder back for a win. The next night, after getting into a yelling match with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, he and Reggie Jackson combined for 22 points in the 4th quarter. The exclamation point came in the game against Atlanta. One thing is for sure now: Kevin Durant is not nice.
In the past few seasons, it has been obvious that Lebron has been the NBA’s top player, but things are starting to change. Suddenly it seems as though Durant has finally made the leap and is, as good, if not better than Lebron. Durant is as much of a lock for MVP as anyone can be in January and nobody seems to be getting in the way of what would be his first MVP award. Despite the fact that last night’s game was relatively one sided, watching Lebron and Durant go shot for shot in the third quarter, in which they each scored 12 points, was something special and only increased the anticipation for an NBA Finals rematch. On paper, Lebron has the advantage with 3 MVP awards and 2 rings, but the eye test proves that they are very equal and are far and away the best players in the NBA.
The Thunder have the best record in the West at 37-10, and that is with Russell Westbrook missing 22 games up to this point. They have won nine games in a row and in the last nine games they have beaten Houston, Golden State, Portland and San Antonio and Miami. Those are 5 out of the top 10 teams in the League. Many people in the NBA don’t believe that a team can win a championship with just one superstar, but after watching this run and seeing Durant tear up the competition, the Thunder’s one superstar might be more than enough.
Eventually Durant is going to have a bad shooting night and the streak will end. That’s just the nature of the game, but make no mistake, this is not an anomaly. Durant has the ability to score 30 every night. He has the ability to close games and lead this young Thunder team to the title. Sadly all the ability in the world doesn’t matter if it isn’t translate into results. A fired up Kevin Durant finally seems to producing those results. And yet, there is only one question that matters: Can Kevin Durant lead the Thunder to a title? He will have to wait until the playoffs to answer that question, but Durant has made it clear that he will be ready when the time comes. Good luck to anyone who tries to get in his way, because they are going to need it.