About an hour before the most star-studded summer league game tipped off at Morgan State’s Hill Field House, I spotted Goodman League commissioner and master of ceremony for the night, Miles Rawls, and asked him about when his team was going to have a rematch against the Drew League in Los Angeles. Rawls again mentioned that they are looking at getting together on Sept. 25, but added that the Drew League is still trying to get Kobe Bryant involved in some way.
“K.D. wants Kobe, doesn’t he,” I asked Rawls, since District native Kevin Durant had already told Brandon Jennings the night before on Twitter that he wanted to see Bryant playing for the Drew League the next time the teams square off.
Rawls nodded and said, “You know K.D. ain’t ducking nobody.”
Rawls words would prove to be on point later in the evening, as the late-arriving Durant eagerly accepted the challenge of being the lone all-star for the Goodman League against the all-star trio of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul that led the Melo League.
“Playing against those guys was a lot of fun for me. I’m excited I got that opportunity playing against some great players, playing with some great players as well,” Durant said after his team lost, 149-141, in a game that was lopsided until the final five minutes.
Durant was aided by NBA players Jeff Green, Trevor Austin Daye, Roger Mason Jr., and Jarrett Jack, but the matchup against the Melo All-Stars was incredibly unfair -- especially with DeMarcus Cousins and Jennings failing to appear, for some reason, placing more pressure on Durant. The Melo all-stars also had the high-flying Eric Bledsoe and Josh Selby, and the sharp-shooting Gary Neal to carry the load when the Big Three wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard.
Durant scored 59 points, but for most of the night, it felt like watching the Eastern Conference Finals, when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined to make Derrick Rose resemble a helpless one-way show. Rawls mentioned during the third quarter that Durant was “doing everything but cleaning the floor” but he couldn’t outscore James, Paul and Anthony all alone.
Early on, Paul, Anthony and James took turns guarding Durant, until James decided to take on the lockout champ by himself. And, that’s when the game got interesting, when the talent disparity was overshadowed by a duel that most fans would never get treated to if the duo was playing an NBA game in Oklahoma City or Miami. Though it might be a matchup that we see in the NBA Finals someday – whenever the league comes back.
No coach would’ve allowed them to take the ball up and go at each other with step-back jumpers, stutter steps and crossover dribbles. That’s the beauty of these summer league pick-up games, because players can defend their reputations and display their pride each possession, with fans goading them every step of the way. James and Durant definitely got caught up, making those $40 tickets – $100 for floor seats – worth the price of admission.
“There’s nothing like it,” Anthony said of pickup basketball. “This summer, summer basketball is back. L.A., Chicago, New York, D.C., Baltimore. It’s back and I think we did a great job of competing for the fans.”
James didn’t speak with reporters after the game, waiting for Paul to answer questions before he snuck out of the gym, surrounded by four police officers.
But the Durant-James battle really got started when James hit a pull-up jumper, then a turnaround jumper over Durant. James, who finished with 38 points, then caught a sick alley-oop from Josh Selby, tipping the ball to a more ideal spot before dunking with both hands. Durant quickly responded by dunking over Anthony and getting fouled. He later completed a baseline drive and dunk around James, stared down James and did a little shimmy before knocking down a three-pointer over him.
“To have that type of opportunity to play against him, and just work on what I’ve been working on all summer, it’s was fun,” Durant said of James. “He’s a great defender, great scorer. I played my hardest on the defensive end against him. I tried to play as best as I can on the offensive end.”
Fans wanted James to respond directly at Durant, but many of his points came from getting out on the fast break and dunking. Durant hit a three-pointer over James, then blocked James’s shot before James drove inside for a layup. When Rawls mentioned that Durant was giving James the business after one jumper, James was already running down the floor to throw a bounce pass off the backboard — to himself, for a dunk.
Durant lost the game, but continued to add to his burgeoning street ball reputation, after earlier scoring 66 points at Rucker Park, then having 44 in the Goodman League’s win over the Drew League on Aug. 20. His cross-country exploits have caught the attention of players all over the league. “Durant’s gone on a rampage this summer,” Anthony said. “I told him to ‘Slow down.’ Because every other night I see him in a different city playing. But that’s just the love of the game that he’s got, and I respect that. I’m glad he actually showed up and played in this game, too.”
“We’ve been following KD all summer, going to all these games,” Paul said.
Durant’s summer-league tour hasn’t just been the equivalent of a grassroots marketing tool, it has been a way for him to get better. His improved ball-handling was evident throughout Tuesday’s game. He consistently used his crossover to get by defenders, or to create separation for him to drop his jumper. He might have to wait for Russell Westbrook to find him in his comfortable spots, or settle for long-range shots, as he often did in the Western Conference Finals against Dallas.
Durant doesn’t believe that he has done anything special this summer, with the attention coming only because the NBA lockout will likely result in the upcoming season getting started late, if at all. “People have blown it out of proportion,” Durant said, “but guys always been playing summer leagues, been playing pickup games every summer. I’ve been doing this ever since I’ve been in the league.”
But now Durant is a two-time all-star, a two-scoring champion, and what he does is relevant. And his desire to play, wherever and whenever somebody wants to get a good run has raised his profile even more. And, nearly scoring 60 with a first-team all-defensive player in front of him doesn’t hurt either. “Whenever there’s a big game, I’m ready to play,” Durant said.