Saturday, January 18, 2014
Durant storming his way into MVP lead
By J.A. Adande
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Let's go back and look at one step on the long journey to Kevin Durant's career-high 54 points Friday night, a part of the process that took place in 2007.
He had finished his lone college season at Texas, and as he stuck around campus and worked out in preparation for his move to the NBA, he still had more questions than answers.
Royal Ivey, a former Longhorn who had spent three years in the NBA at that point, tried to tell him what to expect:
Life is about to change. You're going to be either the No. 1 pick or the No. 2 pick. It's going to be a different realm for you.
But Ivey knew that if Durant's circumstances changed, they wouldn't change him. He gleaned that in very little time.
Kevin Durant is averaging 36.8 points per game in January.
"Just the way he carried himself," Ivey said of Durant. "His humbleness, his humility. On the court it's different; he's a freak. But just the way he carried himself. He was intrigued. He asked questions. He was like a fish out of water because he didn't know what to expect. I was like, 'He's going to be special because he wasn't all ... entitlement. He was like, 'I'm going to go out and get it. I'm going to work.
"That's what he does every day."
Ivey, who was recently signed to a 10-day contract by the Oklahoma City Thunder, got an up-close look at the end result nearly seven years later. He saw Durant make seven of his first eight shots for 15 points in the first quarter, drop 14 more in the second quarter, "slump" to 10 points when the Golden State Warriors double-teamed him more in the third quarter, then start demanding the ball to put the finishing touches on his magical night after the Thunder took command in a 127-121 win over the Warriors.
Durant's main objective was securing the victory, Oklahoma City's third in four games and seventh in the 12 games without Russell Westbrook as he recovers from knee surgery. Durant has scored 30 or more points in the past six games, twice going over 40.
"That's greatness," Ivey said. "Another All-Star goes down, one of the key players, and he steps up and puts the team on his back. You've got to do that. He's willing the team. Everybody's following suit. That's what great players do. He leads by example, but now he's more vocal, so everybody's following him."
This wasn't something that just happened. It's like this story about Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Academy Award nominee for Best Actor whom most people hadn't heard of before "12 Years A Slave."
Ejiofor has been acting for more than 20 years, since he was 13 years old. This is the accumulation of decades spent on a craft, not happenstance.
For instance, it's not an accident that eight of Durant's 19 field goals Friday night came from the right side of the lane.
"I've been working on that shot, the right wing," Durant said. "That used to be the shot I missed the most."
So let's see, not only has he become a better passer and defender, he shored up a weakness in his shooting that many weren't even aware existed. It feels as though his game is nearing completion, even though he's still only 25 years old.
"He's got some more in the tank," Ivey insisted. "He's got some more."
Over the past two games, Durant has shown a slightly different edge. Last season, he tried to counteract accusations that he was too nice by picking up 12 technical fouls. All that did was cost him money and rebukes from family members.
Thursday night, Durant was jawing a bit with Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets. Friday night he was barking for the ball while running downcourt, giving pained looks when his teammates didn't comply, advising Reggie Jackson to "just give the ball to me" when a failure to do so resulted in a turnover.
Durant hasn't turned selfish. He still had six assists on his big scoring night. He was a big reason Serge Ibaka made eight of 11 field goals.
But rather than wait for his turn, Durant took it. The longer he can keep the Thunder near the top of the Western Conference without Westbrook, the louder the "MVP" chants will grow.
For now, Durant called any Most Valuable Player talk "premature."
"It's still early in the season," he said.
If these were the primaries, however, he'd be the leading candidate. Put it this way: It's now up to someone else to prove why Durant is not the MVP.
"LeBron James, I'm sure he can do whatever he wants for his team," Durant said. "I'm sure he can shoot 30 shots, he can go out there and get you a triple-double. I'm sure he can do whatever he wants. He's not jealous of me. I'm sure he isn't."
Media obligations fulfilled, Durant made his way to the showers, singing a New Edition song.
"Sunny days, everybody loves them."
He didn't sing the next line. That's the part it looks as if it's up to the rest of the NBA to figure out.
"Can you stand the rain?"
Because if you were watching the skies, you could see these clouds have been gathering for a long time.