Sometimes great memories come out of the most unexpected of situations. After the news broke that Russell Westbrook was going to be sidelined for a few months, it was pretty easy to assume the Thunder would falter. Finishing the season with the number one seed in the West would fall out of the realm of possibility, and the Thunder would have to fight through the toughest contenders on the road after Westbrook returned. It was obvious that Kevin Durant would have to score a lot, and it seemed like that would be the only part of the stretch that would be fun. The first game of 2014 went down in the same way that the last game of 2013 ended: with the Thunder blowing a double digit 4th quarter lead. This is how it would be. Kevin Durant would score, but the Thunder would only win occasionally until Westbrook returned. Or so it seemed…
Thunder basketball rose to a new level in January behind the guiding hand of Kevin Durant. Game after game he stepped up and made Thunder fans feel feelings they had never felt while watching basketball before. He even made non-Thunder fans feel feelings they had never felt before. For a month, he transcended basketball itself with his absurd level of play and gave us an experience that we’ll all carry with us for the rest of our basketball watching lives.
The end of the month was particularly special. KD eviscerated his number one rival – LeBron James – in a head-to-head matchup that saw the Thunder beat the Heat for the first time since Game 1 of the 2012 Finals. And they did it in convincing fashion. Without their second best player. However, there was another moment that solidified how special Kevin Durant’s January was for me.
As a resident of the state of New York, I don’t get many opportunities to see the Thunder play live. To be exact, I get two per season (assuming I stay in New York). The first came on Christmas day against the Knicks, a game there was just no way I was going to be able to attend. The next and last opportunity came last Friday in Brooklyn against the Nets. I had to be there to see what Kevin Durant was going to do to close out one of the best months in the history of the game.
His final stat line was somewhat pedestrian by his outrageous January standards: 26 points, 3 rebounds and 7 assists. He shot an impressive 10 of 12 from the field in the 30 minutes he played, and his streak of 12 straight 30 point games came to an end. The Thunder won by 25.
But there was a special moment, one that is a little hard to describe in the “you had to be there” kind of way. Halfway through the second quarter, Kevin Durant was heating up. He had started off 4 of 5 from the field, and had spent most of his time to that point in the game setting up his teammates. But then he gave the arena something extraordinary. Something I was there to see. With 4:52 remaining in the second, he hit a jumper. At the 3:49 mark he hit a three. An assist on a Serge Ibaka dunk with 3:06 to go gave the Thunder a 28 point lead. The game was already over, but Kevin Durant was just getting started.
His next two shots would be what I really came to the game to witness, and they would create the moment that would make up my best Kevin Durant memory from the month of January, 2014. The first one was a jump shot from a foot inside the free throw line. Durant dribbled the ball from the top of the three point line to the right side of the lane, spun towards the middle and found his defender, Shaun Livingston, directly in his face. Deron Williams was also providing help from the right. He still took the jumper in one smooth motion and drained it. The crowd cheered their biggest cheer of the night, and I turned to the shocked Nets fan next to me and said “He had FOUR hands in his face!”. I even put up four fingers just to emphasize my point. It was a “wow” moment for everyone in the Barclays Center; he was just that good.
7 for 8 in the game, Durant wasn’t done yet. On the next Thunder possession, he brought the ball up, again getting checked by Shaun Livingston. He faked a drive, crossed over between his legs, stepped back and created a few feet of space. The crowed started to make noise. We all knew what was about to happen. He pulled up and launched a three from straight away. And he nailed it. The sound that the arena made at that point will be the number one thing I remember from the amazing run Kevin Durant went on in January. It wasn’t the cheer that had been heard on the previous possession. It was something else. Something you would expect to hear if you were watching a circus performer walk across a tightrope, begin to lose his balance and then recover, saving his own life in the process. It was a otherworldly mix of cheers and escalating murmurs of “WOAH” as the shot sank through the net, something that I could never have picked up on sitting at home. That sound was unexpected. It was incredible. It was awe inspiring.
That memory was great, and there will be more to follow. Magical moments create magical months that turn into magical seasons. Once Russell Westbrook returns, the Thunder won’t be the exact same team they were on this unexpected 10 game winning streak in January. They’ll be better, but different. Kevin Durant won’t be putting up the same scoring numbers, because he won’t need to. He has already done so much. Take this comparison as some indication of where this season could be headed for Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Two NBA players in their 7th seasons as pros are shown below, which would you rather have?
Player A: 31.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.9 bpg, 51.5% FG, 42.7% 3P, 88.3% FT, 3.4 TO
Player B: 31.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.7 spg, 1.0 bpg, 53.9% FG, 31.2% 3P, 85.1% FT, 2.5 TO
Player A is, of course, Kevin Durant and his numbers on the season through the end of January. His performance in January ranks among the single greatest months in the history of the game, and his totals for the year to this point are also putting his entire season in the conversation to be considered one of the best ever.
The other player is a name that came up a lot this month when Durant went on his historic run. After taking a lot of heat through his first 6 seasons for not having won a championship despite winning multiple scoring titles, he finally broke through and got his ring on that 7th attempt at glory. He would go on to win 6 out of the next 8 titles, and end up being crowned the greatest of all-time. Yes, Player B is Michael Jordan in the 1990-91 regular season. Pretty nice guy to be compared with, right?
Some consider a comparison to Michael Jordan to be blasphemous regardless of who the player is. Seeing his name associated with a player that doesn’t have any rings may actually be cause for a violent reaction in some, despite the fact that a purely numerical comparison is more than fair based on his recent run into the record books.
“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” – William Shakespeare
Acknowledging that Kevin Durant is becoming great is nothing to fear. Embrace it. And don’t be surprised when the zero rings excuse isn’t applicable anymore. Achieving lasting greatness, the kind they can’t argue against, may be just a few short months away.