NEW YORK — At this point, Kevin Durant’s return home Saturday for his lone visit to Verizon Center this season has gone beyond just another matchup between his Oklahoma City Thunder and the Washington Wizards. Durant is playing at a level to which only a handful of players in NBA history can relate, turning every game into the next stop on a personal barnstorming tour that leaves bewildered and vanquished opponents in its wake.
Until he scored 26 points in just 30 minutes in Friday’s 120-95 rout over the Brooklyn Nets, Durant had scored at least 30 points in 12 straight games, the longest stretch of his career and longest in the NBA since Tracy McGrady had a 14-game streak late in the 2002-03 season. McGrady, Durant and Kobe Bryant — who had a 16-game streak earlier in that campaign — are the only players in the past 30 years to score at least 30 points in 12 straight games.
“I mean, it’s not the first time I’ve scored 30 points,” the District native said with a laugh. “I’ve scored in this league before. This is not a stretch where it totally came out of left field. I’m trying to say this as humble as possible, I’m not arrogant at all — but I’ve done it before. I might not have scored 30 in 11 games in a row, but I’ve scored 30 before. We’re talking about a streak, I’m not worried about that. What I’ve been doing the last six years is playing and having fun and learning along the way.”
In the past month, the 25-year-old Durant has hit a game-winner in spite of a triple team, had a triple-double after missing the previous game with a shoulder injury and outdueled four-time most valuable player LeBron James in James’s home arena. He has assaulted scoreboards in lethal and methodical fashion, posting five games with at least 40 points, and taking time to smile on one rare occasion after he buried a jumper with James hounding him before Durant fell into the front row and had a playful exchange with a fan.
“That’s amazing to see,” Wizards guard John Wall said of Durant, who is on pace to win his fourth scoring title in five years. “Everybody is tuning in to see what he’s going to do. He keeps coming up bigger and better every night. It just shows how talented he is. He can score in every way. He really doesn’t have any weaknesses in his game.”
Already a three-time scoring champion, Durant has emerged as an MVP front-runner with a stunning stretch that has allowed the Thunder to hold on to the top seed in the Western Conference despite the absence of all-star point guard Russell Westbrook, who has missed 23 games with an injured knee.
The former All-Met Player of the Year from Montrose Christian has led the Thunder to a 15-5 record since Westbrook was forced to have a third surgery in late December, including a current 10-game winning streak. After absorbing criticism for failing to take the Thunder beyond the second round of last season’s playoffs after Westbrook went down with an injury, Durant has adjusted and his team is thriving.
“Unbelievable. The scary part is, he could play better, probably,” said Wizards backup guard Eric Maynor, a former teammate of Durant’s in Oklahoma City. “For a guy who works that hard, he deserves it. He deserves it because he’s one of the hardest workers I ever been around.”
Maynor offered some simple advice to Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and any other teammate tasked with shadowing a 6-foot-11 forward whose long arms make three-pointers look like layups and passing ability makes it difficult to double- or triple-team.
“Do your best,” Maynor said, shaking his head, about a player who has studied and mastered almost every strategy teams have tried to contain him.
Ariza will draw the initial assignment of slowing down Durant, but the Wizards will attempt to contain him as a team. When the teams met on Nov. 9, Oklahoma City rallied from a 10-point deficit with 3 minutes 26 seconds remaining to win in overtime, 106-105. Durant scored 33 points, including a three-pointer with Ariza all over him that forced the extra period.
“He’s tough,” Ariza said. “One of the best players in the league. What can you say about that? You know just go out there and play. Forget what he’s doing now and focus on the task at hand. He’s going to make shots. So, if he makes a shot, forget about it and come back for the next play ready.”
While Durant’s scoring barrage has attracted plenty of attention, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks knows his star brings more to the table than just offense.
“It’s important that Kevin continues to do what he’s done. Kevin can score a lot of points, but he’s not a selfish player. He’s a team guy. He’s a complete basketball player,” Brooks said. “It’s not like he just had a hot streak for two years. He’s been hot for seven years in this league. Scoring in this league looks easy, but it’s hard. That’s what makes him special. He makes it look easy, but what he does is not easy.”
Last season, Durant joined Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to average at least 28 points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the three-point line and 90 percent from the free throw line. He also became the second player other than Charles Barkley to average 28 points on fewer than 18 field goal attempts. Carmelo Anthony snapped Durant’s string of three consecutive scoring championships, but Durant still finished with the most points scored.
This season, Durant is averaging career highs in points (31.2) and assists (5.2) but remains in range of joining Bird and Steve Nash as the only members of the 50-40-90 club to do it more than once. With his 30-point streak over, Durant can now focus on bigger team goals.
“I’m glad that’s over with. I’d much rather take the win,” Durant said. “To be honest, I didn’t care at all. . . . I hate taking the credit when our whole team is playing well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s something not to be taken for granted, but I’d rather the team get the credit than just myself.”