Kevin Durant ceded his three-year run as NBA scoring champion to Carmelo Anthony, announcing on Instagram before the regular season finale that he was going to sit rather than exhaust himself trying to score the 70 points he would’ve needed. Durant likely also will wind up a distant second in voting for NBA most valuable player to LeBron James, who claimed at Durant’s expense the championship that Durant desires last June.
Despite what he lost, or failed to gain, Durant just completed the most efficient and remarkable campaign of his career, one that placed him in the exclusive 50-40-90 club while showcasing his versatility and expanding game. As the NBA playoffs get underway Saturday, Durant not only helped the Oklahoma City Thunder withstand the seismic trade of former sixth man of the year James Harden to Houston — the Thunder’s first-round opponent — but he also has his team sitting atop the Western Conference for the first time since the franchise bolted from Seattle in 2008.
“I know myself; I always focus on the bright side. I figure everything is going to work itself out,” said Durant, who has lost two close teammates — Jeff Green and Harden — to trades in the past three seasons. “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, it’s just going out and playing the game we love. So I took it as a challenge.”
The result has been a more complete and efficient player. Durant became just the eighth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from beyond the three-point line and 90 percent from the foul line. The other members were Steve Nash (four times), Larry Bird (twice), Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Price, Steve Kerr and Jose Calderon.
Among members of the club, Durant finished with the most free throw attempts (750), the second-highest number of three-point attempts (334) to Nash (381) and had the second-highest scoring average (28.1 points) to Bird (29.9).
“I hear about it all the time,” Durant said of the 50-40-90 club, “and it’s something stat gurus always talk about a lot. I just want to be a well-rounded player, as far as my shooting, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throws. I just wanted to be the best I could. I think this year, I’ve grown in that area. My three-point percentage is not as high as my career, but over 40 percent is okay.”
Durant, a D.C. native and the All-Met Player of the Year at Montrose Christian, also became the 11th player — and first since James in 2008-09 — to average at least 28 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. His impressive season was largely overshadowed by James, who also elevated his game to rarified levels and is poised to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the only players to win at least four MVP trophies. The Miami Heat also hogged much of the attention while winning an incredible 27 straight games, the most in 42 years. But Durant said he doesn’t mind staying somewhat below the radar.
“He’s having a phenomenal season,” Durant said of James, “so [the Miami Heat] deserve all the credit [it gets] and he deserves all of it. I like being one of those guys that’s forgot about, I guess. I like going out and doing my job every single day. I don’t really need a lot of credit. My teammates really appreciate me, and my city and organization do as well. That’s all that really matters to me.”
Durant recorded the first three triple-doubles of his career and averaged a career-high 4.6 assists, using Harden’s absence to take some of the pressure off all-star teammate Russell Westbrook in being the only playmaker on the floor.
“He’s been improving in that area the last couple of seasons and this season, without having James, has maybe expedited that process a bit more,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said. “Now he has the ball in his hands more and I’m running things where he’s handling the ball as a point forward and he’s excelled in those positions and as his career keeps evolving, you’re going to see more of that.”
In an era of declining big-time scorers, Durant was still one of just nine players to finish averaging at least 20 points, the fewest in 47 years. Durant was able to maintain his scoring average through consistency, since he only topped 40 points six times, including a league-best 52-point effort against Dallas. “People say I should score 50 more but I look at it, if I can score 25 or 30, almost every night, I’d rather do that than score 50 once or two or three more times,” Durant said.
Anthony used a late-season barrage to overtake Durant for the scoring title, averaging 36.9 points in April. But Durant actually shot a better field goal percentage (51.0 to 44.9) and averaged 4.5 fewer shots. And though Westbrook actually led the Thunder in field goal attempts, taking 102 more than Durant, the 6-foot-9 all-star forward still led the league in total points for the fourth straight year with 2,280.
“His efficiency has been off the charts,” Brooks said. “He knows the game so much better and it’s a natural progression with the hard work he does with his coaches, that he sees the game at a pace that he can make solid decisions. Not only for himself but his teammates. That shooting percentage; that is a direct relationship from the game slowing down for him.”
The Thunder went a combined 3-9 against the San Antonio, Denver, Memphis and Miami, teams that it might face as the postseason continues. Oklahoma City has also lost six consecutive games to the Heat, including last season’s NBA Finals. But Durant still believes that the Thunder has enough to capture a championship this season, even without Harden, even without success against the defending champions.
“We’re a resilient group,” Durant said. “I like what we bring. I like our attitude. I like our defensive intensity and I like how we move the ball. When we do those things, it’s tough. I feel as though we can beat those teams. It’s just our luck didn’t come up in the regular season. It’s plenty of times where teams have lost the best record in the regular season and end up playing well in the playoffs. So we’ll see what happens.”