You see a basketball player on court, like the nine others playing with or against him. You see him running, shooting, passing, and dribbling in the confines of the same dimensions as the rest. You see him sharing the same space-time continuum with everyone else.
Except that he isn’t really there.
No, Kevin Durant is elsewhere. He isn’t in the same dimension, the same area code, or in the same world as anyone else anymore. For the past few weeks, Durant has been in the mythical place that we call the ‘zone’. That zone of genius, of sheer brilliance. Where Beethoven was in when he composed the Ninth Symphony, where Da Vinci he painted the Mona Lisa, and where Einstein proposed the Theory of Relativity. It’s the place where the world’s greatest authors write their masterpieces and the greatest architects lay out the blueprint for an iconic structure. And where the greatest athletes briefly become superhuman.
For the last few weeks, Durant has been physically on court but a part of him as been hovering above the rest to pluck down this genius into our everyday lives. We knew he had this potential in him, of course: Durant twice became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history, finished second in MVP voting three times in his career, and showed an aptitude for scoring efficiently like few in the game’s history before him.
But this season, it seems that all the forces and incidents around him have produced the perfect moment for the perfect stretch of dominance. It was predicted that the Thunder would stumble and fail to stay on top of the ultra-competitive West once All Star point guard Russell Westbrook was ruled out after his surgery. Instead, Durant turned adversity into opportunity, and the 25-year-old has since almost single-handedly carried Oklahoma City to a 12-5 record.
We’ve seen special players in these zones before. LeBron James finds himself at this level in the playoffs seemingly every year. The Heat as a whole were locked in during their 27-game winning streak. And purely from the scoring standpoint, Kobe Bryant re-wrote the books of history in the stretch back in 2005-06 when he averaged over 40 points over two months scoring 81, 62, and several more 40 and 50 points per game.
Veterans of arcade or simulation basketball video games are familiar with this zone. The “He’s On Fire” moment when a player heats up and no distance or defense is enough to stop him. Durant – who was already the league’s leading scorer before his ‘on fire’ stretch – has been too hot to extinguish recently. Over his last 12 games, he has averaged nearly 38 points per contest, to go with 6.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. It was a stretch that included performances of 48, 48, 54, 46, and a triple double. He hasn’t scored below 30 points in two and a half weeks. The efficient scorer – who is always flirting with the 50-40-90 club
– is also shooting at 53 percent from the floor in this stretch.
Whether he is hitting three-pointers that are as easy to him as layups, slashing to the hoop for an unstoppable drive, or rarely making a mistake from the free-throw line, Kevin Durant makes scoring look easy. But for a young team where most players beyond Serge Ibaka – like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb – are still struggling with consistency, Durant is doing so much more. Apart from averaging career highs in points, Durant is also dishing out a career-high 5.2 assists per game and is close to bringing down eight rebounds per contest. He has developed into a decent defender and an inspiring leader to marshall this relatively inexperienced squad forward.
The result of his special zone is that the Thunder are back on top of the West and just another Pacer loss away from holding on to the NBA’s best record. The combination of individual brilliance and team success – especially in Westbrook’s absence – make Durant the favourite to win the MVP award so far this season.
But there is no ‘Thunder’ without lightning, and OKC will struggle to turn this regular season streak to post-season success without their lightning rod: Russell Westbrook. The team’s championship hopes depend on Westbrook’s healthy return and re-assimilation with the team.
For now, we should just sit back and enjoy genius in progress. Kevin Durant is in a different zone, crafting a masterpiece nearly every day, and creating a mosaic of masterpieces for his greatest-ever season.