The Western Conference's premier superstar may be scorching hot, and he may be putting the ball in the basket in bunches, but that's not all he's doing for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant took his already dominant game and added a new, playmaking wrinkle to it.
KD is in the middle of the most sizzling hot streak of his career, and it seemed like it all started when Russell Westbrook went down with a right knee injury back on Christmas. In 28 games played since that date, Durant has averaged 35.0 points per game and shot 52.4 percent from the floor, 38.9 percent from three and 87.0 percent from the line.
But the numbers don't only center around the scoring columns.
Durant's 2013-14 Evolution
Durant has averaged 6.3 assists over that period, and that's not just because he's had to handle the ball more without Westbrook. He's legitimately become a better distributor.
It's not that KD was ever just a scorer. He always had a handle. He could always move, make the right decisions and distribute. But this year, the subtlety is gone.
Durant boisterously completed his game.
Since Christmas, we've seen obvious developments. And the adjustments haven't come only in quality, but also in style.
Durant is handling the ball more now than ever before. With his point guard and primary facilitator out of the lineup for the first time in his career, he had no other choice.
KD had to adjust for the sake of the team, and he's perfected those midseason tweaks.
Durant shot far more without Westbrook, who returned from the sidelines Feb. 20, chucking it up 22.4 times per game in the 26 contests he played after his point guard's December injury. Before Christmas, he was shooting just 18.3 times a night.
Part of the reason Durant started to shoot more was that he began to handle the rock more often in a sans-Westbrook world. Actual plays, not just isolation, started with the ball in KD's hands. He took over as the new Westbrook, the interim playmaker.
We've seen that in production and in style. Last season, 23.7 percent of Durant's plays came in isolation, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). This year, that figure is down drastically to 16.5 percent.
The chemistry with Serge Ibaka is infinitely better. The decision-making is more natural. And he's even added an occasional LeBron James-like cross-court pass to his arsenal when he comes off screens:
Yes, that play could run on a reel over and over again, and it would still look equally as beautiful the thousandth time the eye caught a glimpse of it. Players don't make that sort of pass through two defenders and over another while zig-zagging around a screen.
James may be the only other player in the NBA who has the vision, height and physical ability to pull off that kind of move so effortlessly. And you could make similar statements about some of the passes Durant has started to make in transition:
The most impressive part about each of those assists isn't necessarily the accuracy; it's the decision-making, the timing.
Durant gets the ball out of his hands so quickly. He sees plays develop easily enough that it allows him to run the break so much more effectively. And it doesn't seem like Westbrook's return from injury changed that.
Over All-Star Weekend, Durant spoke about Westbrook's at-the-time anticipated return, and he seemed just fine with the concept of reverting back to his previous, more passive style with Russ on the floor, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman.
I’m willing to do whatever the team needs me to do. Playing on a team is about giving yourself up for the betterment of the group, for team success. Whether coach wants me to sit in the corner and let Russ create, I’m willing to do that. I want to do that. If it’s going out to make everybody else better, I’m willing to do that.
But maybe "Durant, the facilitator" doesn't have to be such a makeshift plan. All those positive traits, those matured passing skills, don't have to go away upon Westbrook's return. And so far, it doesn't seem like that's going to happen.
Westbrook has been back for two games, and though Scott Brooks limited his minutes, we haven't seen Durant regress to his old style. And in a way, that's another adjustment in and of itself.
In the Feb. 23 game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Durant chucked it up 30 times while dishing out 10 assists. Westbrook took 13 shots in just 25 minutes. And most importantly, KD was handling the ball down the stretch (except for when Derek Fisher decided to start throwing up ill-advised, long-range bombs).
With Westbrook before, Durant used to play off the ball for much of crunch time. And when he did get the chance to create with the rock, it was usually him and Westbrook taking turns in isolation.
He wasn't running a pick-and-roll. He wasn't running a designed play. The sets were far less disciplined.
Simply, we've seen a controlled aggression from Durant that hasn't been there before, and even with Westbrook's return, that trait doesn't appear to be going away.
The Scott Brooks Effect
In a way, Brooks should receive some of the credit for Durant's style continuing into Westbrook's first two games back—even if both contests resulted in losses, albeit to top-notch teams in the Clippers and Miami Heat.
For all the criticism that tends to fly Brooks' way, he has positive attributes as a coach. He can mend a defense, and he can scheme well when he wants to do so. But his biggest weakness may come in adapting throughout a game, season or series.
Historically, Brooks doesn't just struggle with mid-game adjustments. The deficiency goes even further.
He doesn't tend to change things up midseason. He doesn't switch schemes or rotations around in the middle of playoff series often until it's too late.
Remember the 2012 Western Conference Finals, when the Thunder met up with the San Antonio Spurs?
The Spurs had just finished off the regular season on a 10-game winning streak. They got even hotter in the postseason, sweeping the Utah Jazz and the Clippers, respectively, in the first two rounds of the playoffs before jumping out to a 2-0 lead over OKC in the conference finals.
Everyone knew why the Thunder were losing.
The Spurs were white hot, but the Thunder weren't going small enough. They were playing Kendrick Perkins too often and were too reluctant to let Durant run the floor at the 4.
In Game 3, Brooks finally made his change, and it sparked four straight wins and a series victory for his team. But should Brooks have gotten praise for being the last person in the arena to realize the Thunder needed to start going small? After all, he reverted right back to his Perkins-heavy diet the following season.
Now, though, it almost feels like philosophies may be changing in Oklahoma City. Brooks seems to be making an immediate adjustment, a switch that could end up being one of the more important and prompt midseason modifications in recent years for OKC.
Durant is creating 12.9 points per game off his assists this season. The only non-guard ahead of him in that statistic? James, of course.
We've seen two months of Durant as a facilitator, adding onto his brilliant scoring, defending and capable rebounding. Two months of complete and utter dominance. And with Westbrook back, it doesn't seem like anything is changing.
Maybe Durant's passing is here to stay for good. Maybe Westbrook's further integration into the rotation won't change KD's newly developed style.
Maybe we're witnessing the "LeBronification" of the best player in the Western Conference. And as Durant expands his game to move closer to that LeBron-like status, the Thunder don't look like they're planning on doing anything to stifle his prowess.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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