Kevin Durant lifts Thunder as Westbrook recovers
OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant is putting up points like never before, quite an accomplishment for a three-time NBA scoring champion.
The 6-foot-9 forward couldn’t have picked a better time to raise his level of play for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In 13 games since All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook was sidelined after surgery on his right knee, Durant has averaged 35.8 points, posted three of the five highest-scoring games of his career, scored at least 30 in seven straight and pushed his league-leading scoring average to 30.6 points per game.
Durant scored a career-high 54 points in a 127-121 win over Golden State last Friday, a performance that brought “MVP!” chants from the crowd and questions about the award afterward.
“It’s premature,” Durant said. “It’s way too early in the season. I try not to think about that type of stuff. Of course, as a player, you’d love to win an MVP award, but I can’t take my focus off the team.”
The seventh-year player has done it all with startling efficiency. Without Westbrook, Durant has shot 51 percent from the field and 87 percent from the free-throw line while averaging 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
“I’m being more comfortable trying to do different things,” he said. “Whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounding, being a facilitator — I’m just going out there and really just having fun, to be honest.”
The most important set of numbers to Durant and Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks is the team’s 8-5 record without Westbrook, a respectable mark given the opportunity Western Conference challengers San Antonio and Portland had to pull away from the Thunder in the standings.
Westbrook is set to return after the All-Star break, and Durant’s dynamic play has kept the Thunder in position to compete for the best record in the Western Conference.
“There are so many things that I love about K.D.,” Brooks said. “Just the fact that he is an amazing teammate and wants to win. He wants to help his teammates have success. He has a gift of scoring, but he also has a gift of playmaking and seeing that his teammates score.”
Durant will have one of his biggest stages yet when the Thunder host Portland on Tuesday night in a game between two of the league’s top teams. Portland has defeated Oklahoma City in both meetings this season, but Durant averaged 35 points and 10.5 rebounds in the two games. Westbrook played in the first game, but not in the second.
As much as Durant wants to deflect praise, his numbers demand attention. Durant scored 23 of his 48 points in the fourth quarter against Minnesota on Jan. 4, a 115-111 win after the Thunder trailed by 10 heading into the final period. Two games later, he went for 48 again in a 112-101 loss at Utah.
Then, he had the 54-point outburst against Golden State.
This past Sunday, Sacramento Kings coach Michael Malone said during a pregame interview that Durant wouldn’t score 54 like he did against Golden State. Durant simply adjusted and dished out nine assists. He still scored 30 points, but he took just 15 shots.
Malone said Westbrook’s absence creates a “Catch-22.”
“Westbrook is one of the most explosive guards, if not, the most explosive guard in the NBA,” Malone said. “But no Russell Westbrook means that many more shots for Kevin Durant. We all see what he’s done lately. Any time he’s getting that many more shots, it’s not good for the opposing team.”
Warriors guard Stephen Curry said Durant can be slowed, but not stopped.
“If you force him into tough jump shots, you’ve just got to live with the result,” Curry said. “But early in the game, you’ve got to get a body into him, be a little bit more physical and not let him get so comfortable as to just walk into shots.”
Forward Serge Ibaka is benefiting most from the attention teams are giving Durant. Ibaka is averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds, 2.8 blocks the past five games while shooting 61 percent from the field. Much of Ibaka’s damage has been done on pick and rolls with Durant.
“Kevin is a great player,” Ibaka said. “You really have to make a decision — are you going to help or are you going to stay off him? So I just read the game. He’s doing a great job this year finding the guy, passing the ball, so that’s why we do it.”
Overall, Durant is ahead of his career high for a season in points. He’s averaging 5.0 assists per game, ahead of his previous best average of 4.6 last season, and he’s shooting 49 percent from the field, better than all but one of his previous six seasons.
“He’s one of the best players in the league, you know, up there with LeBron (James),” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said. “He shoots the ball very, very well and at his height, there’s not much you can really do when he gets hot. There’s a reason why he’s a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer and possibly MVP this year.”