OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Kevin Durant earned himself a place in NBA history. Without a trip to the playoffs, too, it would be nearly as special.
Durant scored 31 points to finish the season as the youngest NBA scoring champion, and the Oklahoma City Thunder survived a sloppy second half to head into the postseason with a 114-105 win Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“It’s something I really wasn’t coming into the year saying I wanted to get but it feels good to be a part of history and something I’m going to always remember,” Durant said. “It feels even better to get 50 wins.”
Durant had the scoring title all but locked up after a late-season surge that included three 40-point games in April. It became a certainty when Cleveland decided to rest reigning MVP LeBron James, the only player with even an outside shot at catching Durant.
The 21-year-old finished with an average of 30.1 points, 0.4 ahead of James, and supplanted 22-year-old Max Zaslofsky of the 1947-48 Chicago Stags as the youngest scoring champ in NBA history.
“I love Kevin Durant. I love what he’s about,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “The guy is pretty amazing, that he’s able to handle himself at such a young age.
“This is the only time I will say that he’s young. He’s 21 years old but he handles himself with such class and respect for the game, and he’s a great teammate.”
Oklahoma City strayed from the league-wide trend of resting stars, even with nothing to gain but the momentum lost while dropping four of their previous five games. James, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Boston’s “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce all took to the bench to finish the season. Even San Antonio – which had room to gain in the West standings – played without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Durant joined three other Oklahoma City starters in playing all 82 games this season, and he eclipsed 30 points for the 47th time this season.
“Thirty points is a monster game. My career-high was only 23 and that was two games combined,” said Brooks, who actually once scored 23 in a single game.
“That’s the beauty of his game. He makes it look easy, and I think all the great scorers do that. Kevin’s not just focused on scoring. … He does the little things that helped us get the wins that we’ve gotten this year.”
After a 27-win improvement that’s one of the biggest in NBA history, Oklahoma City will meet the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
Rudy Gay scored 25 points and Zach Randolph had 21 points and 11 rebounds for his 57th double-double of the season as the Grizzlies lost for the ninth time in their final 11 games. Memphis had the second-biggest turnaround in the league – increasing its win total by 16 – but fell just shy of .500 at 40-42.
The teams started the season as the two youngest in the NBA.
“Every team in the West won 50 games to make the playoffs. We won 40,” coach Lionel Hollins said. “So we’ve got some games to go to get up there to where we need to be in order to be in the playoffs. But I’m happy with our growth, I’m happy with the individual growth and it’s over now and we move forward to next year.”
With Durant and the rest of the healthy starters in the lineup, the Thunder seemed to be putting on a show in front of their 28th sellout crowd of the season at the Ford Center – at least for a half.
Then Oklahoma City had to finish strong after letting a 27-point lead dwindle to 97-91 in the final 7 minutes. Brooks finally pulled his starters with under 2 minutes left after an 8-2 run sealed the victory.
The players walked onto the court and waved to the crowd in appreciation after the final horn sounded.
“At this time, we were ready to go home last year and enjoy our summers. It feels good to come here and be a winning program,” Durant said. “It was a huge turnaround for us, especially since we kept everybody and just gained a couple rookies. We didn’t make a big trade, we didn’t get two All-Stars or whatever.
“We kept everybody and we just continued to work.”
NOTES: Oklahoma City PG Russell Westbrook, who had his first assist-free game of the season on Monday night against Portland, also had zero in the first quarter before racking up five in the final 6 minutes of the first half. … The Thunder recalled C Byron Mullens and G Mustafa Shakur from the D-League prior to the game, but only Mullens was on the active roster. … Oklahoma City sold out its final 11 home games.