Scoring binge puts Thunder’s Durant in MVP company

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.”