LeBron James didn’t need an update from the media following another masterful performance by Kevin Durant on Tuesday night. He quickly ran off Durant’s shooting numbers from Oklahoma City’s victory over Portland.
And then, James joked that he has a “KD app” on his phone that offers updates on all of Durant’s accomplishments. Of course, it wasn’t true, but with the amazing season Durant is having, it’s not farfetched that the league’s elite players are closely monitoring Durant.
Durant brings his offensive exploits to TD Garden on Friday night for a game against the Celtics. Durant will likely spend the evening producing “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd with his array of floaters, long-range jumpers, and swooping layups from his seemingly endless arms.
In 12 games this month, Durant is averaging a Jordan-esque 36.9 points on 52.4 percent shooting, including 39.7 percent from 3-point range. He’s scored at least 30 points in nine straight games, including outings of 54, 48, and 46. Durant has made basketball in Oklahoma City relevant, verifying commissioner David Stern’s decision to allow the NBA to leave Seattle and move to a smaller market.
“As a leader, my main objective is to serve my teammates,” Durant, considered one of the more humble superstars in the NBA, said on the team’s website. “Some nights I’ve got to put it up and score, and some nights I’ve got to do other things. I just try to do as best as I can to lead the team.”
Said Thunder coach Scott Brooks this week: “There are so many things I love about KD. He’s an amazing teammate. He 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 helping his teammates score. His assist level has gone up every year. He’s rebounding the ball this year at a high clip. He’s defending. He is a two-way player and those are the special players in the league who can impact games at both ends of the floor.”
Durant’s dominance is occurring while All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook recovers from a third surgery on his right knee in the last eight months. The organization has been careful about Westbrook’s recovery, and he looked good in recording his first triple-double of the season in a Christmas Day victory over the Knicks, but he had surgery days later. He is expected to return in February.
The Celtics are attempting to rebuild with a wealth of draft picks, and the perfect model for rebuilding through the draft is the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s top four scorers were drafted by the team, and general manager Sam Presti, a Concord native and Emerson College graduate, built the foundation of the organization with astute selections.
Durant fell into the organization’s lap after the Trail Blazers selected center Greg Oden with the first overall pick of the 2007 draft, but Presti nabbed Westbrook with the fourth overall pick in 2008, when many believed Brook Lopez or Jerryd Bayless was the better prospect. Serge Ibaka, one of the league’s top defenders, was a late-first-round pick in 2008 who was stashed overseas for a season.
The Thunder also scored with former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson, who was selected 24th overall in 2011. After two seasons transitioning to the pro game, Jackson is beginning to fill the void left by James Harden, who was dealt to the Rockets in October 2012 because the Thunder chose instead to re-sign Ibaka to a long-term extension.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder have relied heavily on Jackson to become their second scorer, when Durant isn’t dropping 54 points. Jackson matched his career high of 27 points in Wednesday’s win over the Spurs, also his total in a win Jan. 5 over the Celtics.
“I’ve been just trying to get into the paint and use my God-given abilities,” Jackson said on the team’s website. “I just go in with an aggressive mind-set that I am going to try to finish at the rim. I just try to get the ball up on the rim and luckily it’s been going in for me. I guess years of hard work have been paying off for me.”
Of course, questions about whether the Thunder can truly compete for a title will become more relevant when Westbrook is healthy, and players such as Jackson, University of Connecticut product Jeremy Lamb, and Thabo Sefolosha will be depended on more to support Durant.
Oklahoma City has the pieces to reach the Finals, ranking fourth in the league in scoring, second in rebounding, and seventh in scoring defense. But Durant can’t carry the Thunder through the postseason alone. His bony shoulders are wide, but as the Thunder learned in their five-game Finals elimination by the Heat two years ago, they need additional scorers.
Presti has set the standard for other small-market organizations who want to rebuild without throwing around frivolous free agent dollars. The question is whether such a team can reach the top, because the trade-building model of the Heat, and before that the Celtics, has proven effective.
Oklahoma City does offer hope that locales that aren’t considered attractive to players can compete for a series of years. Durant has been the central reason for the Thunder being among the league’s elite, and his development into the NBA’s premier scorer has drawn notice, even from LeBron James.