NEW YORK — We should have seen this coming. Kevin Durant did warn us, after all. He declared his intentions. He demanded our attention.
Maybe he withheld the precise details, the means and method for his planned annihilation of the NBA. He did not explicitly forecast a record-setting string of scoring outbursts—the 30-point nights followed by the 40-point nights; the delightful, mind-blowing blur of looping jumpers, soaring dunks and slinky layups.
No, Durant never declared he would unleash the NBA’s greatest scoring streak in 11 years. But he did issue a warning of sorts.
“I’m tired of being second,” Durant declared to Sports Illustrated last April. “I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder should have been sinking in the Western Conference standings by now, having lost Russell Westbrook, Durant’s flashy tag-team partner, to knee surgery in late December. The Thunder could have gone .500 over the last month, and few would have flinched. Westbrook is that vital.
But Durant is not settling for merely keeping the Thunder afloat until his co-star’s return. Before scoring a mere 26 points in a blowout win Friday, Durant strung together 12 straight games of at least 30 points, the longest such streak since a 14-game string by Tracy McGrady in 2003.
As a result, the Thunder are still holding first place in the West, at 38-10, with a 14-5 record since Westbrook went down. They carry a 10-game winning streak, including Friday's 120-95 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
Only three other players in the last 30 years have posted comparable streaks: Shaquille O’Neal (11 straight in 2001), Michael Jordan (11 straight in 1987) and Kobe Bryant (16 straight in 2003).
Only one player has been a firsthand witness to both Bryant and Durant’s streaks.
“There’s a feeling you have where you see this guy doing things that nobody else on the planet can do at that time,” said 17-year NBA veteran Derek Fisher, the former Los Angeles Laker who is now a reserve for the Thunder. “That’s what Kobe did during that stretch, and that’s what Kevin is doing now.”
Durant has surpassed the 30-point mark in 16 of the 19 games he's played since Westbrook was lost. He has scored at least 40 points in five games, including a career-high 54-point explosion in a Jan. 17 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Even for Durant, a three-time scoring champion, this is uncharted territory.
“Offensively, right now, he just seems like he’s in a comfort zone,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who hastened to add, “He’s been in that zone for a while now, like years.”
But never like this, every night, every quarter, every minute. For all of his talent, Durant has never been a gunner or a scoring diva, the guy who says, “Give me the ball and get out of the way.” He scores when he needs to, rarely forcing the issue. He is more LeBron James than Carmelo Anthony.
This monthlong scoring spree is, in fact, a departure, albeit a necessary one. The Thunder had no other way to offset the loss of Westbrook’s scoring and playmaking.
Though Durant has the ability to score 40 points at will, “I didn’t really think that he even would want to do it, because he’s such a team guy,” said Fisher, who described Durant’s mindset this way: “I want to make sure all my guys are good. … So I’m not going to even put myself in a position where people think that I’m going to score 30 every night.”
“But I think because he’s doing it in his way, he’s embracing it and he’s enjoying it,” Fisher said. “Because he’s doing it efficiently. He’s doing it without coming down and shooting the ball every time.”
Fisher added, “The game he scored 50-whatever, I didn’t even know he had 50 points. I just looked up and saw he had 50.”
The most remarkable part of the streak is that none of it looked forced. Durant shot 54.4 percent from the field and 42 percent from the arc over his 12-game stretch, while averaging 5.9 assists a game—up from 4.9 per game before the streak began. He did attempt 34 shots on the night he scored 48 points against Utah, but he took 25 shots or fewer in nine of the 12 games. He needed just 28 shots to get 54 points against the Warriors and only 12 attempts to score 26 against Brooklyn.
“I love that he’s still passing the ball,” Brooks said. “His assists are up. And he impacts the game defensively. That’s something that’s been overlooked a lot of years with him. But he’s a two-way player.”
For all of his electric play, Durant is rarely boastful or overly demonstrative, and his laid-back demeanor sometimes masks his true competitive fire. He sounded almost offended that anyone considered his streak remarkable.
“I always knew I could play any type of way,” Durant told Bleacher Report. “People act like I’ve never scored 30 points before in a game, or 40 points before in a game. It’s not like this is totally new to me. But this long of a stretch of 30 points, I guess, is different for me. But like I said, I can play different ways. … I’m just trying to do whatever my team needs, man, night in and night out.”
The seeds for the streak were actually planted last spring, the first time Westbrook went down with a knee injury, in a playoff game against the Houston Rockets. The Thunder were forced to adjust on the fly, and Durant struggled with the added burden. The Thunder beat the Rockets, but they were thumped in five games by the Memphis Grizzlies in the next round, with Durant going 15-of-48 over the final two games.
It was an important lesson.
“I know I can’t do everything on my own,” Durant said. “Last (spring), I thought I had to handle the ball, facilitate, score, rebound, defend. But I’m trusting my teammates a lot more. And no matter what happens just keep having faith in those guys and keep learning along the way.”
It was a learning experience for Brooks, as well. Westbrook had never missed a game in his first five seasons, and the Thunder were unprepared for his absence. Brooks said he reflected on the matter all summer.
"I think all of our natural instincts, including myself, was, 'Get KD more shots,'" Brooks said, referring to last year's playoffs. "And this time around, it wasn't and that's not the case. It's, allow KD to be more of a playmaker. Because I think when teams see that we don't have Russell on the floor, they load up to (Durant). So we've done a better job of putting him in positions that when they do load up to him, he has a simple and a quick decision to make to a wide-open shooter."
The scoring binge has established Durant as the early favorite for Most Valuable Player, albeit with a slim lead over James, his friend and rival. James has claimed four of the last five MVP awards, as well as the last two NBA championships. Durant has yet to wrap his fingers around either trophy, a fact that may also be fueling this vicious assault on the league. Durant dropped 33 points on James on Wednesday, in a 17-point rout of the Miami Heat.
"I'm tired of being second," Durant proclaimed last spring. The message seems clear enough now.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.