OKLAHOMA CITY —- It seems unfair to suggest that Kevin Durant still could be emerging, but as the Thunder seeks to take down the Spurs in the Western Conference final, the fifth-year All-Star forward has a real window to break out as a superstar.
Durant, 23, just wrapped up his third straight NBA scoring title, and with apologies to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the only other player to do that in the last 34 years is Michael Jordan, who was 24 when he got his first in 1986-87.
Playing for a small-market team, the best way for the 6-foot-9 forward's profile to reach that elite level is postseason success, and Saturday's 36-point game, tying the series at 2 entering tonight's game in San Antonio, Texas, was a big step in that direction. Durant had 16 straight points for the Thunder in the fourth quarter, carrying the team after the Spurs had cut a double-digit lead to four. In short, Durant took over the game and the series.
"That was a fact. I was there. I saw it. He was great," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We tried to do a couple of different things, but his play was better than anything we did defensively, that's for sure. He finished it off in fine fashion."
The 18 fourth-quarter points was a career playoff high for Durant, but Thunder coach Scott Brooks was more impressed by the unselfishness of his team leader, who matched a season high with eight assists while committing only one turnover in 43 minutes.
"He's really improved as the years have gone by (in) becoming a better playmaker," said Brooks, who has seen Durant average career bests in rebounds (eight) and assists (3.5) this season. "This year we challenged him to be a better playmaker for his team, and he did that. … He was finding himself at the end, but finding his teammates early in the game."
The series is a youth versus experience showdown. Durant is the oldest of Oklahoma City's top four scorers, with guards Russell Westbrook (23) and James Harden (22) and center Serge Ibaka (22). The Spurs' Big 3, playing together since 2002, are Tim Duncan, 36; Manu Ginobili, 34; and Tony Parker, who turned 30 last month. And in three days last week, the Spurs quickly went from a team that had won 20 straight games to a vulnerable squad now facing pressure to hold court at home.
On Saturday, San Antonio got within four on a Duncan basket with seven minutes left, then Durant made six consecutive shots (and two free throws) in a span of seven possessions, igniting a sellout crowd of 18,203.
"When a player that talented gets hot, he's really hard to contain," Ginobili said. "We tried different things, and they didn't work. … So it was hard because we were on a run. We were feeling good ourselves, and we just couldn't make a stop."
If the Thunder advances to the NBA Finals, it will complete an impressive changing of the guard in the West, where Oklahoma City has eliminated Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki, 33, and then the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, also 33. If Durant's postseason progress seems familiar, he has followed the path of James, who didn't make the playoffs his first two years in the league and reached the NBA Finals in his fourth season. Durant is two wins away from doing the same in his fifth season, perhaps facing James and Miami, and along the way, games such as Saturday's will earn him a reputation as a closer.
"I would like that," Durant said. "I just want to be calm and composed and poised in those situations and make the right basketball play. There are times when I need to pass to my teammates, and times when I need to score. … I'm learning every single day. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm going to keep growing in those situations."
Durant started his NBA career in Seattle the year before the Sonics became the Thunder, and with a team built around him, Oklahoma City has averaged 18,000-plus fans every season. In a state best known for college football, he has united both Sooner nation and their Oklahoma State rivals, all the more impressive considering he played his lone college season at Texas.
"When teams start making a run, we've got to go to our first option, and that's Kevin," Westbrook said. "He's been doing a great job all season of closing games for us. When things get tight, he always finds a way to help us throughout the game."