Kevin Durant has a long way to go before we can compare his career with Michael Jordan's with good conscience, but the Oklahoma City Thunder MVP favorite has at least one thing in common with the greatest of all time.
Durant tied MJ's streak for consecutive games scoring at least 25 points on Friday night, hitting a three-pointer in the fourth quarter to pull his Thunder within a point of the Houston Rockets.
It was just the most recent example of Durant's heroics, but it also came in a losing effort. His 28 points were somewhat overshadowed by a monster performance by former teammate James Harden (39 points). Nevertheless, most will remember this game as another step in Durant's young but already iconic career.
KD's streak-tying game comes on the heels of a 28-point, seven-rebound performance against the San Antonio Spurs. In addition to keeping his scoring streak alive, he ended the Spurs' streak of consecutive wins at 19.
He told 60 Minutes earlier this season (per CBS Sports' Royce Young) that he was tired of just being considered a top-three player, implying that he sought recognition as the NBA's best. Thanks to his continued development, that recognition should come soon enough.
What He's Done
Greatness is nothing new to the 25-year-old Durant, but this has been his best season yet. He's averaging over 32 points per game and stuffing the stat sheet night after night, taking nothing for granted as his Thunder pursue a second appearance in the NBA Finals.
OKC has depended on Durant more than ever this season with point guard Russell Westbrook missing 27 straight games earlier in the season.
Westbrook's return certainly hasn't interrupted Durant's flow. While playing together through the month of March, Durant averaged 34.5 points per contest, putting up Jordan-like numbers despite playing alongside another prolific scorer.
Much of the attention has focused on Durant's scoring, but it's been his well-roundedness that's garnered so much MVP attention.
That well-roundedness begins with KD's marked improvement as a passer. With the ball in his hands more than it's ever been, Durant's responded with a career-high 5.7 assists per game. He's consistently put the Thunder in a position to win with his lethal combination of scoring and court vision. There's little doubt he's become the best all-around offensive player in the game.
It helps that LeBron James' numbers have taken the slightest of dips from his 2012-13 MVP campaign. The duel was a close one between the two last season, but the gap has widened this time around, and Durant has clearly taken the lead. He's done so as much through sheer determination as innate talent alone.
Royce Young argued as much for the Daily Thunder:
The often used excuse for LeBron and the Heat are that they’re coasting. I don’t think LeBron is, but if so, shouldn’t that just be more MVP points for KD? How could we award the league’s most prestigious award to a guy that isn’t bringing it every night, compared to a guy that is consistently putting up absurd numbers every game he plays?
It also helps that Durant's Thunder have continued winning, holding on to the second seed in the Western Conference despite all that time without Westbrook.
Diversified as his game has become, we'd be remiss to ignore Durant's dominance as a scorer. The 51 points he dropped on the Toronto Raptors in March (in a one-point win) put the cherry on top of a season in which Durant has scored 40 or more points on 12 different occasions.
That's impressive even for a runaway MVP.
How He's Done It
Much of OKC's collective success has as much to do with Durant's continually improving defense as it does with anything he's doing on the offensive end. The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater notes that head coach Scott Brooks' trust in Durant to guard multiple positions "puts him in rarefied company."
Per Slater, Brooks described Durant's improved versatility this season: "Not just guys that can attack. He can guard spot-up guys, he can guard pindown guys, he can guard post-up guys. It’s a credit to his growth as a player."
That growth won't show up as readily in his statistical dominance, but it certainly shows up in the win column. And it shows up on the video to anyone who's paying attention.
That wasn't always the case for Durant. He wasn't much of a two-way player when he came into the league, but that's steadily and resolutely changed over time. Writing for the Daily Thunder, Royce Young describes the final product:
Now? Durant’s a good defender, maybe even secretly a great one. A lot of people either are choosing to ignore that fact, or are still living off past reputation. The numbers everywhere say it. And if you watch KD play, you can see his energy, effort and focus on that end are at an incredibly high level.
The MVP votes will probably see much of what Young's seen.
They'll also bear witness to an offensive display, the likes of which we haven't seen in years. Durant scores from everywhere, and he does so efficiently. He does it off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations alike. He drives, he steps back, he always finds a way to score.
That's a lot of green.
How Does He Beat This?
As much as Durant has accomplished this season, he'll need help in the playoffs. He's here to win a championship, and the individual accolades won't count for much without one. The challenge in the postseason will be striking that balance with Russell Westbrook, knowing when to take over and when to defer.
It's a challenge in relative terms, the kind of problem most teams would love to have. But it's a challenge that nevertheless gets magnified in the playoffs, when the opposition begins making defensive adjustments and throwing a variety of looks at OKC's scoring attack.
Durant will also look to put his defensive stamp on games, dismissing any notion of his one-dimensionality once and for all. On the biggest of stages, people will be watching for just that.
Finally, KD will look to get the MVP that matters most, the one they give away during the NBA Finals. Should he face friend and rival LeBron James in those Finals, Durant would have every opportunity to prove he's really No. 1—to get rid of those "top-three" assessments in the process. That's Durant's end game.
This was just another step along the way.