Don’t say Oklahoma City Thunder all-star forward Kevin Durant is on a roll, because that would imply his great performance will eventually end. The evidence suggests this could be the new normal for the NBA’s second-best player, who is gaining on No. 1.
Despite being without star point guard Russell Westbrook for 24 games, the Thunder has the best record in the Western Conference, and Durant’s all-around improved play is the foundation of its success. Durant shined during the Thunder’s long winning streak, which the Wizards ended at 10 games Saturday night in a 96-81 victory. Although the District native scored 26 points, Oklahoma City, which looked like a team playing for the second time in as many nights, lost its third in a row on Washington’s home court.
Still, Durant has been so impressive throughout the season while leading the Thunder to one of the top records in the NBA, you wonder how much longer Miami Heat superstar LeBron James will hold the crown. The four-time league MVP still does more things better than Durant — in today’s game, James is without peer at elevating his teammates’ level of play — but Durant’s big move is the talk of the league. At only 25, Durant has put himself in position to become second to none — and it may happen much sooner than James would prefer.
Durant is making wise decisions on the court, “and each and every game, I’m growing in that area,” he said. “Just trying to figure out the best places to score, be aggressive . . . make plays for my team.”
The former All-Met Player of the Year from Montrose Christian has been a big-time scorer almost from the moment he first bounced a basketball. And Durant won three straight NBA scoring titles while displaying his moves, but his game has improved this season because he hasn’t wasted many.
On an off night for him against the Wizards, Durant missed 13 of 21 field goal attempts. Overall, though, Durant has been sharper in everything — shooting, passing, seeing the whole floor and setting up his teammates — while Westbrook has been sidelined because of knee problems. The Thunder is 15-6 since Westbrook, a three-time second-team all-NBA selection, had knee surgery for a third time in late December.
Durant went off in January, averaging 35.9 points on 54.9 percent shooting from the field. With a streak of scoring at least 30 points in 12 straight games, Durant became only the third player in the past 30 years to accomplish the feat (Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant did it in 14 and 16 consecutive games, respectively). Entering Saturday’s matchup at Verizon Center, Durant again topped the league in scoring at 31.2 points, averaged 5.2 assists and was shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 42.7 behind the three-point arc — all career highs.
Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti isn’t surprised. He has seen this taking shape for a while.
“What he’s doing right now is certainly special, and not something to be taken for granted,” Presti told me in a phone interview. “But I do think that the ability for him to sustain it, over the period of time that he has, is a matter of [expected] progression.”
Durant has displayed greater patience and trust in his teammates by “trying not force anything,” he said. “I’m just trying to play off my teammates as much as I can and not put too much pressure on myself . . . trying to score over two or three guys and turning the ball over. I’m just letting it come to me.”
For Durant, it all seems to be coming together nicely.
Last season, Durant was among the most efficient players in league history. Consider: Durant joined Larry Bird as the only player to average at least 28 points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. And only Durant and Charles Barkley have averaged 28 points on fewer than 18 field goal attempts. You know you’re doing something right when you’re in categories with only Larry Legend and Sir Charles.
So how did Durant, who was already near the top of the sport, climb higher? He just kept working.
Durant stays after practice to improve his shooting and ball handling. He studies opponents’ defensive strategies in film sessions. Whenever Durant is handed a scouting report, he makes sure to read it. He’s always seeking an edge — which is just the way Thunder management likes it.
“What’s most impressive to me is that he’s doing it efficiently,” Presti said. “He’s getting better shots himself by creating shots for other people. There’s kind of a reciprocal relationship between his efficiency and the fact that he’s letting his game kind of evolve. His efficiency is matching his production, which is a very, very rare thing for guys in his position.
“The quality of his play right now is the highest it has ever been. But a lot of it is choices. He’s studying the game and not just playing it, and it’s starting to translate into really good choices, poise and real intellect about how to help the team. . . . He knows when to push and when to pull.”
Durant is pulling and pushing the Thunder to new heights. And their rise appears to be anything but temporary.