In the month of January, Kevin Durant has averaged more than 36 points a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s put the rest of the league on notice with every crossover, pull-up jumper and 3-pointer that he is, without question, the MVP of this season so far.
Amid Durant’s exceptional month, the defending Western Conference champions – the San Antonio Spurs – fell victim to the Thunder a week ago on their own court. How about the 46 points Durant scored in heroic fashion against the Portland Trail Blazers, who are tied for the second seed? Or the 54 points against the Golden State Warriors at home? Two nights before that game, he dropped 36 points in a win over Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston.
What’s been the driving force behind his play and the motivation that has taken Durant’s game to the next level?
On Wednesday night, Durant’s biggest challenge will be going head-to-head with LeBron James for the first time since last February, when James eclipsed him for the second time last season. The Heat completed the season sweep of the Thunder and won both games by a total of 16 points. James had already bested Durant in the NBA Finals two years ago.
“I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it,” Durant told Sports Illustrated in an interview last April.
Due to Russell Westbrook’s injury in the first round against the Rockets, Durant never got an honest shot at getting back to the Finals in a rematch against James. So what happened instead? James won his second straight NBA title while Durant sat at home praising his good friend and Olympic teammate.
Fast forward to now and it just seems fitting that the 25-year-old Durant is poised and ready to win his first MVP award along with an NBA championship. And remember, both James and Michael Jordan won their first NBA titles at 28.
Durant knows that ultimately, James raised the bar even higher by winning two straight titles – a bar that he hopes to reach himself one day. In order for him to not be labeled second again, he has to win a championship now and dethrone the King. This unwillingness to finish second to James has brought out an aggressive side to Durant’s game. He’s more animated and more vocal to his teammates. He’s now always on the attack and has become more of a leader with Westbrook out. Westbrook is known as the alpha but in his absence, Durant has been the one jawing at opposing players and teasing the opposing team’s bench after big plays. He’s playing with a bravado about him that the league had no choice but to recognize.
By far and away, it is James and Durant as the top two players in the league. This season, the gap between the two has shrunk tremendously. You put a smaller, quicker defender on Durant and he’ll post them up and shoot over the top with his freakish length. You put a bigger, more physical defender on him and he’ll drive by them. With the combination of his athleticism, skills and work ethic, Durant has transformed into an unstoppable matchup.
“That’s my guy,” Durant said of James. “I looked up to him, and now I battle him.”
Wednesday night will be more than a battle. Durant has established himself as the only player ready to challenge James for his throne as the best in the NBA. He believes his time is now.
“I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.”