It's become something of an old-hat canard in the NBA — every year, and more specifically every summer, we expect stars to add some new wrinkle to their game, be it a refined post game, a new dribble move, an extra foot of range on their jumper or a sharper stroke from the foul line. It's taken as read that the near-great must turn the experience of falling short in their pursuit of a championship into new skills, using defeat as fuel to become faster, stronger, quicker and more adept; coming on the heels of famously maniacal workers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, this is the price upcoming stars must pay to earn a place in the basketball firmament.
So coming off a season in which he led the NBA in scoring for the third straight year and established himself as the clear second-best player in the world, but lost quickly and convincingly in the NBA Finals, what was left for Kevin Durant to do? How about become the kind of player who can not only hold up against a 6-foot-9, 225-pound bull backing him down into the paint, but send his weak stuff away, kickstart the break and finish it with an and-one dunk while being fouled by that same hard-charging-in-retreat bull?
Well, as Josh Smith can attest, he's done that:
Durant's end-to-end dominance of one of the most gifted two-way players in the game was just one of the highlights in his remarkable fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. The Oklahoma City Thunder star had 18 points, five rebounds and a block — 6-for-9 from the floor, 3-for-5 from 3-point land, 3-for-3 from the line — in 10 minutes of final-frame work to lead his team to a 100-92 road win over the Hawks. Durant finished with a season-high 41 points on 14-for-23 shooting, 13 rebounds, three assists and two blocks (which makes me think he didn't get credit for one of those swats on Smith) in 41 minutes, pushing OKC's NBA-best record to 21-4 and their winning streak to 12 games, the longest of any Thunder team and the franchise's longest since the Seattle SuperSonics won a dozen in a row 30 years ago.
Of course, I'm simplifying the narrative a bit — it's not like Durant, fresh off becoming the world's most gifted scorer, suddenly realized this summer that he wasn't a good defender and that his lone weakness was his ability to anchor in the post. As a matter of fact, according to game-charting data made available by Synergy Sports Technology, opponents are scoring more points per possession when posting up Durant this year (0.72 PPP) than they did last year (0.65), although they are thus far scoring a bit less frequently when posting up Durant; he's conceding 36 percent of the time this year, down from 36.5 percent of the time last year. That said, it's worth noting one important area in which Durant's steadily improved on D, according to the numbers, is in checking spot-up shooters, which account for by far the largest share of his defensive possessions — he's giving up just 0.75 PPP on spot-up attempts and allowing opponents to score just 30.6 percent of the time on those opportunities this year, by far his best showing in Synergy's four-year stat log.
In reality, Durant's largely been somewhere between serviceable and quite good defensively over the past few years; we just haven't really noticed it as much because we were focusing on all those points he was scoring. Now, though, with Oklahoma City running roughshod over the league for the past six weeks, we're paying more attention to the whole floor game. We're seeing that the whippet-thin dude we tend to think of as all arms and legs, able to be tossed by a stiff breeze, can get dirty in close-quarters combat with big bruisers. Maybe not all the time — OKC coach Scott Brooks might not want to test it too much against, say, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol for all game every game seven times (oh, man, please let it be seven) this spring — but more often than you'd think.
We're seeing in in how he's improved as a rebounder, grabbing a higher share of opponents' misses than in any of his first five seasons, and in the responsibility he took for improving his talents as a facilitator in the aftermath of the trade of James Harden. Durant's assisting on nearly one in five of his teammates' buckets while on the floor, a career-best rate, handling the ball more often without turning it over more often than he did last year, and hooking teammates up in the places they can do the most damage — more than three-quarters of his dimes have set teammates up at the rim or behind the 3-point line, according to Hoopdata.
And he's doing it all without losing a step in getting his own offense. As a matter of fact, he's continued to trim away some of the fat in his scoring game, taking a career-best 53.7 percent of his shots either in the restricted area or from behind the 3-point arc, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and converting more efficiently across the board en route to a ludicrous shooting slash line — 51.9 percent from the floor, 43.5 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the line, which would make him a member of an elite and very exclusive shooting club if he can maintain it — and 27.7 points per game, third-best in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. (Here's something else, if you want to get sick: He's scored even better on the road than he has at home — 28.8 points per game on 52.1/47.4/93.2 in nine trips away from Chesapeake Energy Arena.)
Oh, and he can also still do this to Kyle Korver:
So that's cool. It's like they're saying these days: KD is not nice, and that's made the Thunder mean this season.
One more note on the Thunder's 12-game winning streak: Durant and company need two more wins to tie the best Sonics stretch ever — 14 in a row, accomplished by the 1996 Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp squad that took the Bulls to six. Their next two games come on the road — a Thursday night visit to the Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by a Christmas afternoon Finals rematch with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Merry Christmas, NBA fans — we got you a nationally televised matchup between last year's MVP and this year's model. We didn't keep the receipt, but we're pretty sure you didn't want to return it anyway.