Posted Feb 20, 2013 10:54 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For all his high-wire highlights -- a windmill of limbs churning through the lane for a tomahawk jam, pivot-spins that sprout feathery floaters, baseline leaners, one-legged fallaways, quick-snap 3-pointers -- Kevin Durant had never found himself as vulnerable as last Thursday when he lay writhing on the court, clutching a throbbing left hip as LeBron James and the Miami Heat pounded Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder.
With 1:41 left in a nightmarish first quarter and Oklahoma City's supercharged crowd subdued by the Heat's 28-13 opening assault, Durant leaped to snare an offensive rebound. As he rose, Miami's Chris "Birdman" Andersen inadvertently clipped him.
As if in slow motion, Durant twisted, practically parallel to the ground, suspended in mid-air. Then in frightening real time, his rangy body crashed to earth. The thud of his hip came first. Then the sound of elbows and knees colliding with hardwood echoed through the arena.
The Thunder's medical staff raced out. The crowd erupted with boos, demanding a foul be called on Birdman. Some 18,203 fans held their breath as the franchise lay face down, his cheek pressing into the floor.
Durant slowly got up, cupped his left hand around his hip and started walking it off. He didn't head for the tunnel and the training room or the bench. He went straight to coach Scott Brooks standing on the sideline.
"Don't take me out," he told Brooks.
"The last thing I was thinking about was coming out of the game," Durant would say later. "The way the game was going, I just wanted to keep fighting and I'd deal with it later."
Durant, the three-time scoring champ and the league-leader as the season's stretch run begins, was 0-for-7 before the fall. But he knew his team needed him.
"I know it's just a matter of time, it's just a matter of time," Durant said. "That's how I can tell I've matured a lot. A year ago, two years ago, I would have let it affect me. I probably would have only finished with two field goals, and I think I just kept trusting in myself, being confident in myself."
Durant flipped a 2-for-10 first half into a 10-for-14 second half and scored 22 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter. Too little, too late, certainly, in the Heat's 110-100 win. But Durant, who played every second until fouling out with 28 ticks left, never caved, never allowed his teammates to sulk and at least gave James and Miami something to remember if the two teams meet in a Finals rematch in June.
It can be hard to remember that Durant is still just 24, four years James' junior. His creativity and the ease with which he scores continues to evolve at a meteoric pace.
Yet teammates, opposing players, coaches and others around the game have singled out a different part of his game.
"I think he's just more of a leader now," said Atlanta Hawks guard DeShawn Stevenson, who had his fill taking shifts on Durant during two playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks. In two games this season against the Hawks, Durant has shot 52.5 percent and averaged 31.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists. "It's the way he's conducting himself, his tone, talking to his teammates, putting guys in the right places. He's just becoming a leader and you can see it. He scores so easily, he makes it look effortless, but I think him being a leader is just coming out."
Said teammate Kendrick Perkins: "He just has taken it to another level, just his approach to the game. I haven't seen him this locked in. He's really focused on what he's got to do."
It's a natural progression, the development of Durant's game and mind. Now, his teammates seek his direction, follow his actions and rise and fall with his emotions.
"He's becoming more of a leader. He's becoming more vocal," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's demanding in the right way of his teammates. He's become one of the more mature players in the league in that sense, even though he's still a young guy. He's progressed very quickly as far as the mental side of the game."
Durant entered the league as a polite and respectful 19-year-old, a kid with a smile as engaging as his personality. He's now a polite and respectful man, who reads inspirational books and passages before games, who committed long-term to a small-market team and who remains ever-accessible. He's so likable because he seems so genuinely nice and happy, unburdened by external expectation, free of inner conflict or self-induced controversy that so often seem to ensnare other star athletes.
He seems so comfortable in his own skin that he'd fit right in with the retired geezers in those squeaky-clean Dove commercials. Maybe that's why, in his own commercials, Durant tries to harden his image a bit. His humorous Nike campaign wants you to believe that "KD is not so nice."
"He's living up to it a little bit," Perkins said. "He got his first flagrant [foul] the other day. I was proud of him."
Mr. Nice Guy has become more animated in games, scowling and snarling after dunks and emphatically slapping the floor or barking after whistles, so much so that he's accumulated 11 technical fouls in 52 games, tying combustible Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins for the league lead.
Few can touch Durant's other numbers as he closes in on one of the most efficient offensive seasons in league history. Still, a fourth MVP trophy already appears to be in James' hip pocket. Durant is seeking his first.
"It's more about how my teammates view me, that's what I'm worried about," Durant said. "Everybody respects me in this locker room. Everybody respects my opinions, they value what I say and they view me as the leader on this team. And that's the one thing that I try to accomplish, how my teammates view me; that's what's important to me.
"Of course I want to be one of the best players in the game; I want to be one of the best players to ever play the game. But if I just keep working hard, I can get there. Right now I'm more concerned with how my teammates view me. They like what I'm doing."
What's not to like? They're witnessing history. Durant -- averaging 29.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.4 apg -- is threatening to become just the sixth player ever to finish a season in the 50-40-90 club -- 50 percent shooting, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the free-throw line. With 29 games left, Durant is at 51.9 percent, 42.7 percent and 90.7 percent.
He holds a slight edge over Carmelo Anthony (28.6 ppg) for the league's scoring lead. If Durant wins his fourth consecutive scoring title in his sixth season, only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan will have reeled off longer streaks. Each won seven in a row.
And if Durant accomplishes both, and the Thunder finish the season with the best record, he will become the only player, as The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry pointed out, to do all three in the same season.
"I'm still continuing to get better. I'm still continuing to learn the game," Durant said. "I still got room to grow, I can still get better. I don't think I'm necessarily in my prime yet."
No matter the venue, Durant simply fills it up. He scored 30 points in Sunday's All-Star Game, becoming the first player ever to score at least 30 in three consecutive games. His 115 total points is the most of any player in NBA history through his first four appearances.
And Durant's All-Star Game scoring average of 28.8 points is the highest in the game's history, 3.7 points north of James.
As uniquely different as Durant and James are physically, their games are becoming more similar in terms of versatility and domination. Like James, Durant, with the departure of James Harden to Houston, is handling the ball more at the point of attack, initiating the offense and whipping bounce passes from the top of the arc into the paint for easy buckets. His assists are up nearly 1 ½ over last season.
"He's not quite making those laser passes across the floor like LeBron, but he's seeing opportunities like that more often," Brooks said. "He's not doing it as frequently [as LeBron]. He makes those plays that only one guy can make in this league, and now he's learning. Maybe he's not quite there, but he's going in that direction. There's going to end up being two guys."
While LeBron has learned to take his powerful 250 pounds closer to the basket, the rangy Duran t-- whose official height of 6-foot-9 elicits eye rolls from competitors who swear he's 6-foot-11 if not a straight-up 7-feet -- is a lethal perimeter shooter who can simply go over his defenders or use his quickness and galloping strides to get to the basket.
"He's 7-foot tall, and he has an overwhelming wing span," said Mavericks forward Shawn Marion. "At least I'm 6-7. When you have smaller guys on him, if I was him I would post all those guys up. They can't block his shot. And then he's so athletic at his size, so he's a lot quicker than most people anyway at the position he's playing."
Durant is so tall, so young, so uniquely skilled and so difficult to compare to any player that even legends of the game aren't so sure how to classify him. Dominique Wilkins, who combined radical athleticism with an all-around offensive game that has him at No. 11 on the NBA's all-time scoring list, already has Durant elevated among the game's greats for two reasons.
"The first thing is Durant has become more of a leader," Wilkins said. "Two is that he's an incredible -- when I say incredible, it might be putting it lightly -- talent as far as creativity and scoring the basketball. I've never seen a 6-10, 6-11 guy -- if that's how tall he is, you really don't know how tall he is -- who scores from the perimeter the way he does at that size.
"He's the best I've ever seen that size to score the ball consistently the way he scores it. He has the total package."
And one that seems to grow bigger by the game.
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