Kevin Durant is on another level right now, and it’s got nothing to do with numbers.
The NBA’s leading scorer is playing at an all-time best and, combined with his passing, rebounding and shooting efficiency is closing in on one of the best individual seasons in recent memory. He’s doing things that haven’t been done since Michael Jordan retired, is putting himself into the conversation as the best player on the planet and has a healthy Thunder team poised to compete for an NBA title.
But physical numbers aside, Durant has taken his mental game to a new level.
Just as Bulls center Joakim Noah has noted on multiple occasions that he doesn’t care for the MVP chants that rain down from the United Center rafters, Durant is wired the same way. Even if he won’t admit it, he understands the individual accolades will pour in at season’s end, likely earning his fifth straight All-NBA First Team nod, a fifth scoring title and his first MVP award. Those accomplishments and awards certainly validate him as one of the game’s greats, but his focus has changed and his lens has tightened. That’s not what he’s after.
In his seventh season, Durant has made a concerted effort to focus solely on what his team requires of him to earn victories. At the forefront of that change included strengthening his mental approach, which he said occurred through conversations in the offseason with Hall of Famers Karl Malone, George Gervin and Larry Bird. It’s been an important revelation for Durant, who has been asked to do even more with Russell Westbrook missing 30 games earlier this year recovering from knee surgery.
It’s the reason the Thunder went 20-7 between Christmas and the All-Star Break without Westbrook, not only staying afloat without their All-Star point guard but actually thriving.
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“That’s half of the game to me, is mental. Just how I approach it, my focus every time I step on the court, what am I thinking about? It’s really, to be honest, there’s some games where I think about what I have to do instead of what the team has to do, and that takes my focus off the bigger picture sometimes,” Durant admitted. “But just staying conscious of what we need to do as a team and how I can help, that’s what I try to tell myself every time I step on the floor.”
Whatever he’s telling himself, it’s working. And that’s what has been so impressive to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who said Durant’s consistency to have that broadened focus is what’s taken him to the next level, from a prolific scorer and tough competitor to one of the game’s best playing for one of the NBA’s best teams. It’s one thing for a coach to have a role player bringing the same effort to the arena each night; it’s another for Durant to do it.
“He’s playing at an MVP-level this year – and actually the last couple of years – but his consistency this year: November was special, December special, January it was super-special, and February it was special,” Brooks listed off. “He’s having a special year, and he’s been consistent. I know what I’m going to get from him on both ends. The amazing thing about it? He makes it look easy. And what he does for his team is not easy."
Nothing came easy for Durant or the Thunder against the Bulls. Facing the league’s best scoring defense and one of the game’s best perimeter defenders in Jimmy Butler, Durant poured in 35 points on 11-for-21 shooting and added 12 rebounds and five assists in the Thunder’s 97-85 win.
While being hounded by Jimmy Butler on the perimeter and inside against Noah and Taj Gibson, Durant scored 18 first-half points in as casual fashion as a player could, coming off curls for jumpers, beating his man off the dribble for thunderous dunks and connecting on the only 3-pointer he attempted. In the third quarter, with the Bulls making a surge Durant, as he’s done all year, did what he needed to do for the Thunder by scoring 13 points to help push their lead out to as many as 11 points.
And though he scored just four points in the final period, he entered the game after the Bulls had cut a nine-point deficit to just three, and over the next 7 minutes the Thunder pushed the lead to 16 with an 18-3 run.
That spurt was keyed by the Bulls focusing most of their defensive attention on the player who had scored 31 points through three quarters, but it also left players like Serge Ibaka (15 points) and Russell Westbrook (17 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) open for easy looks. The Thunder shot 6-for-12 during that stretch, thanks in part to running the offense through Durant, who did not turn the ball over in 42 minutes.
“Kevin’s an aggressive player and he helps us score points, not only for himself but guys getting open looks,” Brooks said after the game. “You have to guard him with a lot of times somebody else other than his man. And he’s read the defense well all year and he’s going to continue to do that. He passes the ball and tonight he did a good job taking care of the ball.
“Kevin puts a lot of pressure on the defense because he can make plays for his team, and he’s an amazing scorer, that’s very obvious. But what he does really well that he doesn’t get enough credit for is he impacts the game with his playmaking, and that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. You have to always know where he is.”
For the playmaking he did in the fourth quarter, the story was still his scoring. Durant’s 35 points mean he has now scored 25 or more points in 32 straight games, something which hasn’t been done since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. Durant has 40 games with 30 or more points, 17 more than the next highest player to reach that threshold, reigning MVP LeBron James, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
"He’s just been playing great, and he’s done a great job all season long playing consistent, playing at an MVP level," Westbrook said, "and he’s going to continue to lead us."
The streak likely will continue Thursday in Cleveland, and it’s a good bet Durant will put on another show in another city for opposing fans and media alike to gawk at. The numbers – points, rebounds, assists, -- will continue to pile up in the box score as his MVP resume strengthens and the Thunder close in on the rear view mirror of the top-seeded Spurs.
But a re-focused, mentally strong Durant has his priorities in line. As long as the Thunder continue to win like they did Monday night, the Jordan-esque streaks, the awards and the ultimate goal – and NBA title – may follow.
“I just go out there to play and to have fun,” he said. “If all that stuff comes with it then that’s cool, but I have bigger goals in mind.”