For the better part of three quarters in Thursday's West Coast nightcap, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like they had already left for this weekend's All-Star break. The Thunder's vaunted defense, which headed into Thursday ranked among the NBA's five-best teams in points allowed per possession, opponents' field goal percentage and opponents' 3-point accuracy — had allowed the woeful, injury-wracked and scuffling Los Angeles Lakers to shoot 51.5 percent from the floor, go 8 for 18 from 3-point land, and take a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter behind a balanced attack (six Lakers had nine or more points) led by point guard Kendall Marshall, who'd dropped 15 dimes (including some hellacious bounce passes) against two turnovers in 32 minutes of work. Here's how bad it was: Even Kevin Durant seemed out of sorts, and I didn't think that could even happen anymore.
Sure, the Thunder All-Star — whose determined campaign to demolish any defense that stands before him and take the MVP by force has been one of the first half's most remarkable storylines — had racked up 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists by the end of three. But the normally efficient Thunder All-Star needed 22 shots to get there, had gone a dismal 0 for 8 from long range, and had coughed it up six times, to boot. In a season where Durant's focus has so often seemed unshakable and singular, it looked like the trip to New Orleans to start in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game as the West's leading vote-getter might have snuck up and bit him, taking just a bit of the edge out of KD's game and giving the wounded Lakers a fighting chance to end their franchise-record-tying six-game home losing streak.
And then, y'know, the fourth quarter started.
Durant finally found his range in the fourth, making 3 of 5 triples and scoring 19 points in the final frame; it was his second-highest-scoring quarter of the season, trailing only the 23-point fourth he hung on the Minnesota Timberwolves during a 48-point night back on Jan. 4, and it led the Thunder to a 107-103 victory.
Durant finished with 43 points on 14 for 33 shooting, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in the win, which sends OKC into the All-Star break as winners of 15 of their last 17 games with an NBA-best 43-12 record. It was Durant's eighth 40-point game of the 2013-14 season, five more than the next most-prolific in-game scorer, fellow Western Conference All-Star starter Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and as many 40-point outings as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony managed in leading the league in that category last season. And while Durant's long-running 30-point streak was recently snapped in a blowout win, he's now scored 25 or more in 20 straight games, which is nine shy of his own personal best and makes him just the sixth player ever with multiple 20-plus-game streaks of 25-plus-points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
While the sluggish start to the game was full of flaws, the ending — fueled by Durant's hot shooting and active, long-limbed, clamp-down defense that forced nine fourth-quarter turnovers and held the Lakers without a field goal for nearly 6 1/2 minutes — was just about a perfect encapsulation of what's led Oklahoma City to the top of the league this season. From Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman:
“Just couldn’t get anything going,” Durant said of the first three quarters. “But that shows that we stay strong through the storms, keep fighting and made some big plays down the stretch.” [...]
“He is one of the best that I have seen in terms of really just playing through anything and everything,” Derek Fisher said. “Slow starts, the ball is not going in, he is just so confident in his ability.”
He's got cause to be, of course, as the first "half" of the season made so clear.
Durant heads to New Orleans leading the league in scoring (31.5 points per game), Player Efficiency Rating (30.9, a mark only Jordan, Wilt and LeBron James have ever reached over the course of a season), total minutes, field goals, and free throws made and attempted. He's fifth in free-throw percentage, 10th in defensive rebounds, and in the top 15 in both assists and steals. He has taken on a larger role in the Thunder offense with point guard Russell Westbrook sidelined due to knee surgery, finishing a career-high (and NBA-topping) 32.7 percent of OKC's offensive possessions with a field-goal attempt, free-throw attempt or turnover, and doing so without skipping a beat — he's producing an average of 123 points per 100 Thunder possessions, the best mark of his seven-year career, while ranking third in the league in True Shooting percentage (which accounts for a player's accuracy on field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws) and 10th in effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3s being worth more than 2s). He's doing more of everything, and he's doing it better than ever.
After All-Star Weekend wraps up, the Thunder will get back to work and, soon enough, tackle the inevitable adjustment period of reintegrating Westbrook into a rotation that has flourished without him; OKC has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions in 1,828 minutes without the All-Star point guard this season, staying right on par offensively with their productivity with Russ on the court while operating as an even stingier defensive unit. That's not to say that they're better without him, of course — just that figuring out how to rejigger their firing-on-all-cylinders reality to make a new whole better than the sum of its improving parts figures to be the primary challenge for Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks over the final 27 games of the season, which speaks to how well Brooks' charges, and Durant in particular, have handled working without one of the league's premier backcourt producers and chaos agents. Perhaps the best summation of how well Durant's performed this season without his longtime running buddy, though, came from Daily Thunder's Royce Young after Thursday's come-from-behind win:
How insanely stupid is it that Durant went for 43-12-7 and it’s obvious that he could’ve played so much better?
It's very stupid, and very scary, and a very appropriate note on which to close the first half of a season that's seen Durant do just about everything in his power to shed that "No. 2" label and step into the spotlight all on his own.
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