Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant is blossoming into the superstar many expected him to become and is battling for the NBA scoring lead. Against one former scoring champ, however, he has still looked a bit out of his league at times.
Kobe Bryant has outscored Durant in all three meetings this season, and he can help the Los Angeles Lakers run their overall winning streak to eight and their run against the Thunder franchise to 13 on Friday night at the Ford Center.
Durant upped his 20.3-point average as a rookie by five last season, and he has taken the next step in 2009-10. In doing so, he has transformed Oklahoma City (43-27) from a lottery regular to a team in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
While Durant's 29.7 points per game are just behind LeBron James' 29.8 average, the NBA's fourth-leading scorer has consistently gotten the best of Durant this season. Bryant, who won the 2005-06 and 2006-07 scoring titles, has averaged 32.3 points in leading the Lakers (53-18) to three wins over Oklahoma City, outscoring Durant in each game.
Durant averaged 25.7 points in those matchups, but struggled with his shooting in the first two. He finished with 28 points but went 0 for 8 from 3-point range in a 101-98 loss Nov. 3, then shot 8 for 20 from the field and scored 19 in a 101-85 defeat Nov. 22.
He had his best game of the series Dec. 22, scoring a team-high 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but Oklahoma City fell short 111-108. Bryant helped Ron Artest guard Durant down the stretch and drew Durant's sixth foul.
Bryant has averaged 34.1 points per game in Los Angeles' 12 consecutive victories over the Thunder franchise. He had a game-high 40 on Dec. 22.
Since that meeting, the Thunder are 30-13 -- a half-game better than the Lakers. Los Angeles' 23-4 start, though, gave the team a leg up on the Western Conference, and it is peaking again with 11 games left in the season.
The Lakers have pulled away in the race for the No. 1 seed with seven straight wins, beating San Antonio 92-83 on Wednesday.
The Spurs shot 37.5 percent and were held to 35 second-half points as Los Angeles began a five-game road trip.
"I think we understand that we're at the point of the year where we're really tuned in and focused about what we have to do out there," said forward Pau Gasol, who had his fourth straight double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. "Defensively, in that good mindset so it carries on to the offensive end."
The Thunder are sixth in the West, and certainly want to avoid falling to No. 8 given their recent history against the Lakers.
Perhaps Oklahoma City's latest victory served as an omen that its drought against Los Angeles is about to end. Durant had 25 points and rookie James Harden returned from an injury to score 23 in a 122-104 win that snapped a 13-game skid against Houston on Wednesday.
"That was a great game for us, we played great basketball," coach Scott Brooks said. "The pressure we put on our team is to play hard and play for each other. We can't worry about what other teams are doing. We can't control any of that."
While the Thunder will certainly be focusing on slowing Bryant and Gasol, they won't have to worry about Andrew Bynum. The Lakers' center, who's averaged 19.3 points against Oklahoma City, has missed two games with a strained left Achilles' tendon and isn't expected to return on the trip.