Allow me to throw some numbers at you:
48, 30, 33, 37, 36, 54, 30, 46, 36, 32, 41, 33, 26, 26, 31, 26, 29, 41, 36, 43, 28, 42, 28, 37, 28, 42, 34, 27, 42, 29, 30, 35, 35, 51, 27, 43, 29, 31, 28, 28, 38.
These are the point totals of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant in his last 41 games. On Jan. 5, 2014, Kevin Durant scored 21 points. Crimea belonged to Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines had a full fleet of 777s, and Broad City hadn’t premiered yet. It’s been half an NBA season since Kevin Durant has scored fewer than 25 points in a basketball game. As of last night, Durant’s became the longest such streak in the last 50 years, breaking Michael Jordan’s mark from 1986–87, a season in which Jordan averaged 37 points per game. The Thunder are in second place in the staggeringly competitive Western Conference, despite having been without their electrifying point guard, Russell Westbrook, for much of the season. Next month, Durant will almost certainly win his first MVP Award, after finishing second to LeBron James the last two years.
Durant is a player of many virtues, the greatest of which also happens to be his sport’s most fundamental: He scores. Kevin Durant scores in every way imaginable and often in ways that aren’t. Putting a sphere through a ring is an inherently pleasure-inducing act. Watching this seven-minute video of Durant making baskets is like staring into a fire or gazing at waves roll in. It’s elemental, naturally beautiful.
Durant is 6-foot-9, a fairly standard height for an NBA forward, but the real story is his arms. Durant has a wingspan of 7 feet and 4 inches. Kevin Durant’s arms are 7 inches longer than Kevin Durant is. When you combine this insane physical attribute with a freakishly quick release and otherworldly hand-eye coordination, a frightening advantage emerges. Great scorers are frequently described as “unguardable,” but usually this implies movement, a knack for eluding defenders; with Durant it’s more a state of existence. For all of his thrilling drives, cold-hearted step-backs, and impossible fadeaways, the most indelible part of Durant’s repertoire is his ability to make 25-foot jumpers while perfectly defended, by unfolding those arms over some hopeless victim and flicking his right wrist.
It’s a cliché to say that great athletes make their sport look easy, but the best basketball players tend to do the opposite. For all of Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” exhortations, Michael Jordan made the game look like some inaccessible work of high modernism. Allen Iverson used to score 30 points a night while being shorter than a lot of fans who’ve never scored 30 in a pickup game. Everything LeBron James is and does looks completely impossible. Players like these change the game by bending it to their will; Jordan didn’t play basketball so much as he tried to beat it.
Durant, on the other hand, does make basketball look easy. He doesn’t reinvent his sport because he doesn’t need to: The game as we know it seems to have been made with him in mind. When we watch a player like Durant march into history it’s hard not to grasp at precedents, to contextualize him and to try to make sense of what it is we’re seeing. In the Boston area where I grew up this comparison is sacrilege, but the last player I saw play basketball like Kevin Durant was Larry Bird. Neither is a jaw-dropping athlete or even the most athletic player on his team, but both possess a sort of preternatural basketball virtuosity, the type of game that other players stare and shake their heads at. One of the most storied moments of Bird’s career came in a 1985 game against the Atlanta Hawks, when his shooting was so dominant that he had the Hawks’ bench cheering for him in the closing minutes. Bird finished that game with 60 points. Durant has yet to meet that mark—his career high is 54, set back in January—but he will. It could happen in his next game, or the one after that. Or it could happen in both, because it’s 2014 and he’s Kevin Durant.
Perhaps the most stunning part of Durant’s story is that a player who’s about to win the MVP while scoring at a more prodigious clip than anyone since Kobe Bryant in 2005–06 (the year of the 81-point game) isn’t even the best player in the NBA. Durant has had a better year than LeBron James but absolutely no one worth listening to would argue that Durant is a superior basketball player to LeBron. Durant’s Thunder squared off against James’ Heat in the 2012 Finals and were dispatched handily. If both teams make it back this year—a distinct possibility, particularly if Westbrook stays healthy—the two-time defending champs will likely be favored.
Durant is an underrated all-around player—he’s not just a scorer—but James is the game’s greatest multidimensional force since Oscar Robertson. Kevin Durant can will the Thunder to victory with torrential scoring; LeBron can will the Heat to victory almost any way he chooses. To beat Miami (and, lest we forget, he’ll probably have to beat the Spurs first), Durant will need his teammates to step up in ways that James frankly doesn’t. But as Durant surely knows, there’s impressive precedent for this, too: When Michael Jordan won his first title in 1990–91, his playoff scoring average was the lowest of any postseason since his rookie year and the victory had as much to do with the maturing games of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. That first Bulls championship came in MJ’s seventh season—the same year Durant is in now.
In the wake of 2010’s ill-conceived Decision, when it became fashionable to bash LeBron for everything from setting fire to Lake Erie to fumbling on the Broncos’ goal line, Durant was held up as the anti-James, a soft-spoken aw-shuckser who’d never dream of taking his talents to South Beach or any other NBA destination glitzier than Oklahoma City (which is most of them). This was all stupid, of course. Kevin Durant is, by all accounts, a nice guy, although LeBron seems like a nice guy too, and as of late Durant’s shown refreshing signs of a snarly streak. Durant is also myopically obsessed with basketball. A Sports Illustrated story from last year opened with Durant rattling off his shooting percentages from specific spots on the floor to reporter Lee Jenkins. While other players employ chefs and drivers and assistants and managers, Durant’s payroll includes an analytics expert. Durant might be perfect for OKC but that’s because the allure of “distraction” is completely alien to him. In order to be distracted you have to be interested in things in the first place: Durant is interested in one thing, and that thing is basketball.
The NBA is a wondrous place right now. LeBron James is LeBron James. In Los Angeles Chris Paul continues to forge a career that by its end may place him as the greatest small guard in history. New Orleans’ second-year sensation Anthony Davis is emerging as a once-in-an-epoch big man. Greying legends like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and the convalescing Kobe Bryant rage against the supposed ends of their careers, while 2014’s incoming draft class is one of the strongest in recent memory. And Kevin Durant? He’ll keep scoring over all of them, trying to be the only one left. As any kid who’s ever seen the sun set on the playground will tell you, shooters never want to leave the court until they’ve made that last basket.