Scoring binge puts Thunder’s Durant in MVP company

By JEFF LATZKE , AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — One by one, Kevin Durant has been taking the NBA’s biggest names and scoring his way right on past them.

First Kobe. Then LeBron. Next up, Carmelo.

With a tear that began just before Christmas, Durant has climbed into a virtual tie with Denver’s Carmelo Anthony for first place in the NBA scoring race. He’s had at least 25 points in each of his last 23 games — a feat none of the other superstars has ever accomplished and no one else has ever done at his age.

Durant says he only cares about wins — and those are rising, too. With Durant leading the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder are right in the thick of the playoff race and making that dismal first season seem like ancient history.

“I know that Carmelo’s going to be back, LeBron is going to have 40 or 50 points one of these nights and Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and some of those guys are going to continue to score in the high 30s and sometimes 40s and they’re just going to easily surpass me,” said Durant, who will make his All-Star debut next week. “That’s something I try not to worry about, man. I don’t even want to think about that.”

Durant increased his scoring output in each of the past three months and is now averaging 29.69 points, just five-hundredths of a point behind Anthony, who has missed the past six games with a sprained ankle.

“He’s a phenomenal player. He’s beautiful to watch,” Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said of Durant. “He’s kind of an old-school throwback in terms of scoring the ball. This year, I see him trying to defend and he’s trying to lead. That’s the sign of a player that one day is really going to be a dominant player, probably one of the best players in our league.”

That was before the Hawks lost a 106-99 decision to the Thunder. Afterward, he was calling Durant an MVP candidate.

His own coach sees it, too, in the way Durant sets the tone for Oklahoma City with a workmanlike routine that never wavers. It’s even evident on his Twitter page, where his post after nearly every win includes the same phrase: “Back to work tomorrow.”

“He scores, leads us in rebounds, steals, blocked shots. He does a lot for us,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But when you get mentioned in groups like that, your team has to win. And we’re winning some games, more than we won last year, but we’re still not winning at the level that those other teams are.”

Rick Barnes, Durant’s coach at Texas when he took the college game by storm for a season, saw the same approach in Austin and still gets to witness it during the summer. He said Durant — who’d be a senior this season — turned into a team leader while working toward his degree this past summer. Each day, he’d get the college kids up in the morning, never miss a class, play each afternoon with the Longhorns and then return to shoot some more in the evening.

“He’s always been that way,” Barnes said. “When he walked on our campus, he didn’t come in with the attitude that `I’m here.’ All he ever said to us is, `I want to be the best I can be.’ One of the hardest workers that we’ve ever had. He loves this game.”

The Thunder entered Thursday tied with Portland for seventh place in the Western Conference, and only three games behind third-place Dallas.

“He’s continued to work to know he’s got to work on his defense, his all-around game and I’m telling you: He’s just getting started,” Barnes added. “And there’s no doubt in my mind, one day he’ll be the best in the NBA.”

A revelation came during Durant’s first season, when he averaged 20.3 points and won Rookie of the Year.

“Once he had played against Kobe Bryant, he said what he respected most about Kobe Bryant was when Kobe had the ball, his exact words were `He wants to cut your throat,'” Barnes said, recalling a conversation with Durant. “‘When he’s playing defense, he wants to cut your throat.’ He said, `That’s where I want to get to.'”

Durant said he’s still working toward that goal, but he sees himself making progress as his game develops. He doesn’t feel like he’s forcing shots outside of Brooks’ offense and he’s aiming to be more aggressive.

It shows during the current stretch when he’s averaging 32.5 points. He’s cut down on his 3-point tries by about one-fourth but he’s making twice as many (51 percent as compared to 28 percent in his first 26 games) and focusing on getting to the rim or getting fouled in the process.

In 14 of the 23 games in his scoring binge — which started after the only game this season that he didn’t get to the foul line — Durant has shot at least 10 free throws. And he’s tried more foul shots than anyone else in the NBA this season.

Looking back, he remembers those first times playing against Bryant and still tries to emulate that aggressive demeanor.

“He was physical, he played hard. He never smiled on the court, never talked to anybody,” Durant said. “He took that kind of approach that he wanted to destroy whoever he was guarding and whoever was guarding him. He wanted to exploit them by shutting them down on the defensive end and coming down on the offensive end and scoring on them. That’s the mentality I wanted to take.”

Durant said he doesn’t put himself in the same superstar category with Bryant and the other players that surround him on the scoring list — but he knows how to get there.

“You gotta win. That’s all it takes. We’ll see,” Durant said before adding his familiar refrain. “Just gotta keep working.”