Thursday, June 07, 2012

Kevin Durant Is Becoming What LeBron James Can't Be

I don't watch much NBA basketball, but after the New Jersey Devils found a way to stay alive in the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday, I flipped over to TNT and caught the last 14 minutes or so of the San Antonio Spurs' season.

This didn't seem to be a likely scenario as the hockey game was playing out. The Spurs led by 15 points early in the game, saw it peak at 18 in the second quarter, and took a 15-point lead into recess. As the hockey game played to its conclusion, the Thunder were staging a stirring comeback.

Along the way to a 107-99 win, Kevin Durant may have become the kind of team-leading star that LeBron James was supposed to be. He played all 48 minutes, scored 34 points, pulled down some huge rebounds, had the pass that led to Kendrick Perkins' monstrous and dagger-licious dunk in the final 30 seconds, and even drew a Manu Ginobili charge in the fourth quarter.

The difference between the snippets of the first half I got to see and the fourth quarter? Oklahoma City turned on the defensive energy in the second half. The Spurs had too many open looks in the first half, and while they might be old, they have plenty of guys who can hit big shots when you leave them open.

In the second half, the Thunder -- led by Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- were all over the place defensively, contesting every pass, drive, and shot. It was an impressive display for a young team, one that people assumed would crumble early in this series.

Instead, the Spurs crumbled. The team with a 20-game winning streak (going back to the regular season) didn't have a chance in the second half of this game, much like it didn't have a chance in Game 3, and much like how it looked inferior for most of Game 5.

Durant and the Thunder earned this. In doing so, Durant may have propelled himself past James in the pantheon of present-day NBA greats. James gets all the publicity -- good and bad -- because of the star power he's possessed since he was in high school. Durant wasn't the top pick in his draft (Greg Oden), he has played in two middle-road markets (Seattle and then Oklahoma City), and at no point has he gotten the deserved publicity because of 1) the market he plays in; 2) the power of guys he's in the league with right now; and 3) the fact he hasn't won a title.

(I know James hasn't won a title, but he's got a running buddy who has in Dwyane Wade, and he has been the alpha dog in this sport since he was 17. Durant can't claim those things. His experienced running buddy is Derek Fisher, a guy who generally goes about his business the right way and doesn't draw attention to himself by wearing asinine clothes after crushing playoff losses.)

James hasn't been a favorite of mine since the whole "Decision" debacling, so it was awesome to see Durant step up in the fourth quarter Wednesday -- at both ends of the floor -- and take a leading role in his team's defining moment.

Well, defining moment for now. There is more business to come for the Thunder.

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