OKLAHOMA CITY — The pregame get-together was not warm. That was obvious.
Think pageant hug at center court, but with less emotion. No enthusiasm. Almost like it was mandatory.
Then again, it’s not like Kobe Bryant is going to embrace Kevin Durant or really much of anything Durant does these days.
Yet here they were, a game after Bryant surpassed 30,000 career points, lined up against each other. Bryant and Durant, the player many expect will be the next to get to the number only four others and Bryant have surpassed.
The two are linked loosely as London Olympic teammates but are intertwined closely as scoring forces. Ten years Durant’s elder, Bryant has five NBA championships, but fewer scoring titles (3-2). And it’s Bryant, not Durant who is among the all-time elite in scoring.
Friday night, inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, the two faced each other for the first time since last year’s Western Conference semifinals. And the two didn’t disappoint.
Oklahoma City won its seventh in a row, beating the Lakers 114-108 in a game where the Thunder led by as many as 19 in the second half and both of the stars did exactly what everyone thought.
Durant 36 points. Bryant 35 points.
“It’s a competitive game and he plays hard every minute he is on the floor,” Durant said of Bryant. He makes you want to step up and play.”
Earlier this week, Bryant joined four others — former Lakers Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as Karl Malone and Michael Jordan — as the only players to score 30,000 or more points. But it’s Durant who has won the past three scoring titles and it’s Durant who’s only 24 years old and talked about as the league’s next great champion along with LeBron James of the Miami Heat.
“If he stays healthy, he’s going to be in that category as one of the best ever,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I haven’t messed him up yet. It’s hard to mess Kevin up. He works hard, has a great skill set, a great attitude and is coachable. He has the body, has the mind as the toughness. He has the ability to be a 28-30 point scorer for a lot of years.”
He’s also on pace to join Kobe and the elite.
“Yeah. If he just continues to fill ’em up the way he has been, I think he can,” Bryant said of Durant. “I’m not a mathematical person by any stretch of the imagination, so I can’t calculate how many years it would take or what he’d need to average, but it seems possible.”
Not just possible, but completely plausible, because like Bryant, who had the benefit of Shaquille O’Neal for a span of eight years, Durant also has a support staff who’s viable, young and dynamic. Russell Westbrook and the ascent of Serge Ibaka makes Durant even more likely to continue scoring at a record clip. Westbrook has his share of detractors, but when he scores like he did Friday against the Lakers, going for 27 in the first half and finishing with 33, things are just easier for Durant. And while many have suggested the relationship between Westbrook and Durant is strained, the two are signed to play together for the next four years. It looked fine Friday. The two combined to shoot 22-of-45 from the field.
But consider Durant doesn’t seem wired much at all like Bryant, who has spent a good portion of his career either brooding over bad calls, complaining to referees or at and to teammates. Bryant has the championships, but Durant carries none of the baggage and doesn’t face the daily pressures of playing in Los Angeles.
Already, Durant is the second-youngest player to LeBron James to get to 10,000 points, which he did in the first game of the season this year. More? According to ESPN’s Chris Palmer, Durant has 129 games where he’s scored 30 or more points in his first five years in the league. Bryant had 42 in that same span.
“I call him ‘Similac,'” Bryant said of Durant.
At his current pace, Durant will hit 30,000 points with about 2,500 fewer shot attempts than Bryant. Bryant is leading the league in shots again this year and the two are at the top of the league in scoring once again, with Bryant leading at 28.0 and Durant right behind at 26.5. Figure the two will be battling until the end of the season for the scoring championship.
And figure Durant will be compared to Bryant for a long time.
“It’s all about the win column,” he said. “If we lose and I score a lot, it’s a bad night for me. All I want to do is win.”
Bryant has done that throughout his career. Durant is just getting going and the Thunder seem to be on their way.