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It really hit me April 27, 2011, during Game 5 against the Nuggets.
The Thunder were trailing Denver late in the fourth quarter, facing the very real and unfortunate prospect that they’d be returning to the Rockies for Game 6. It was Oklahoma City’s first chance to close out a playoff series and so far, they were 0-1. They fell short in Game 4, a game in which birthed the Russell Westbrook Debate after OKC’s fiery young point guard hoisted 32 shots in a loss.
There the Thunder were, down nine with three minutes left. A young team feeling the overwhelming pressures of closing and they were failing again. No team has ever lost a series once going up 3-0, but you always feel like your team is going to be the first. And if the Thunder didn’t find magic late in that one, they were one step closer to the ugly side of NBA history.
With their home crowd frothing at the mouth, the Thunder needed a spark. And Kevin Durant was up to the challenge. Drills a long 2. Swishes a 3. Hits a tough mid-range jumper. Drives and dishes to James Harden, who knocks down an open 3. Drops another jumper, plus the foul. Hits the free throw. Draws a foul, kills off both freebies. And then puts it all on ice with a running dagger with 12 seconds left.
That was the moment it clicked in my head. Holy crap, Kevin Durant is going to be an NBA legend.
Now, it was pretty clear well before that that KD was an NBA superstar. And it was probably fairly obvious to most that he was headed for the history books. But that moment, with his team being pushed into a corner, with so much pressure, so much tension, so much at stake… he showed up. The scoring barrages, the 38-point nights against the Bucks are one thing. Stepping up with 41 — 14 of the team’s last 17 in the final three minutes — in a series clincher, is another.
It’s an amazing thing knowing you’re watching greatness, and not just that, but greatness evolve over time.
And here’s Durant, about to begin his sixth NBA season. That’s right. Sixth. He just turned 24 year and here’s what he has on his resume: Rookie of the Year. Three-time scoring champion. Three-time NBA All-Star. Two-time All-Star starter. All-Star Game MVP. Three-time first team All-NBA. Gold medalist at the World Championships. Olympic gold medalist. Two-time NBA MVP runner-up. An NBA Finals appearance. 9,978 points, 2,513 rebounds and 1,073 assists.
Already in those six years, he’s provided those Moments, the ones you’ll never forget, the ones you’ll rehash with friends 25 years from now. The game-winner against the Mavs in Game 1 last year. The dagger against the Lakers in Game 5. The 51 against Denver in overtime. The fourth quarter against the Spurs in Game 4. And on and on. And on.
The question is: What comes next?
Do we get a glimpse of his ceiling this season? Or is he still in the early stages of his evolution still? Is this going to be a transcendent year where Durant takes yet another leap? Still just 24 years old, how good can Kevin Durant really be?
The events of the last few days changed things for the Thunder and if anything, just opened the door for more possibilities with Durant. He has more responsibility on his shoulders, he has to do more for this team, he has to be the steadying force to get them through this bump in the road. If the Thunder are going to do great things this season, it’s going to happen almost exclusively because KD went to a higher level.
I get this weird feeling that Thunder fans are in for some kind of treat this season. Losing James Harden is a hit against the Thunder’s watchability and likeability. But don’t forget: You get to see Kevin Durant play at least 82 times a year, 41 one of those coming in person. The absence of that wonderful beard will be apparent early on. It’ll feel weird to see Nick Collison saunter over to the scorer’s table alone. It’ll be strange to see Collison trying to run a two-man game with Kevin Martin. But the Oklahoma City Thunder have always been about No. 35. It’s his team, it’s his city. Other players may come and go, but as long at Durant holds the keys, Thunder fans have something special.
Durant has that incredible ability to captivate you any time he touches the ball. I honestly can’t think of a time where he let a jumper fly and I thought, “No chance.” KD is the basketball equivalent to Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson where you wanted to stand up every time they touch the ball. His career high is 51, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he tossed up a 60-spot. Hell, I wouldn’t say 70 is out of the question. Durant plays within the offense so well, scoring points in rhythm like he’s on the bass in Rock Band. Imagine if OKC were down 20 in a big game and Durant felt the need to TAKE OVER. If he got hot — like Rucker Park hot — he could completely own a game on the offensive end. Fading jumpers. Driving layups. Free throws. Deep 3s. I could see him exploding for 30 in a quarter at any time. And that’s why I get excited about every single Thunder game. The anticipation of Durant.
He can straight cook. It’s almost a science at this point. If KD makes one shot, that’s a start. But two in a row? He’s cooking like he’s Heisenberg. That’s one of my favorite things about having Your Guy. When you’re a fan of a team and you have a player like Durant, you get to know his game intimately. Thunder fans know KD. The arena can sense it when he’s heating up. They can see the look he has when he’s made three straight buckets and is about to pull up from 30 feet. That low buzz building when the ball finds his hands and he’s about to cross halfcourt… it’s the best.
There are so many things to love about KD. He’s as clean as Danny Tanner’s living room. He kisses his momma. He says yes sir and yes ma’am. He says thank you when you compliment him. He wears a backpack, he carries a Bible, he signs autographs before every game, he truly loves his teammates. I think I would see the headline “Delonte West to become a missionary” before I’d see “Kevin Durant charged with a DUI.” People ask me a lot if KD’s the real deal. He absolutely is. He’s as genuine, kind and humble as he seems.
But most of all, it’s the basketball.
With Thunder U taking a big hit the last couple days, with a dark cloud hovering over Oklahoma City, take refuge in Kevin Durant. He is your star. He is the one you’re watching grow into an NBA legend. He is going to make it all right.
What does this season hold for Durant? Can he lift the Thunder to a new level? Can he take his own game to uncharted territory? What kind of performances, moments and memories are we about to get watching No. 35 every couple nights?
I have no idea, and that’s my favorite part about it.