There’s no secret that all season the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award has been a two-man race between the reigning champion and four-time recipient LeBron James, and a four-time scoring beneficiary Kevin Durant.
As we approach the final two weeks of the regular season, playoff spots are cemented, some teams fight for survival, the usual suspects ponder on ways to improve on last year’s post-season, woeful sides such as the Lakers pray for the end while forbidding anyone from ever discussing their dreadful 2013-2014 NBA campaign, plus that scarce committee begin to anticipate which way their MVP vote will swing.
While LeBron has the chance to make history by becoming the first player to win the prestigious title five times in six seasons, Durant appears to be shrinking the percentages on James’ triumph.
KD has been in the mix now for consecutive seasons. Well, it’s difficult not to be when: a) you’re one of six players in history who’s a member of the 50-40-90 club (a player that averages 50% FG, 40% 3FG, 90% FT in a single season) and b) you’re one that consistently flirts around these impressive percentages every campaign.
In recent eras, most voters have typically come to a verdict by this time – usually LeBron. But with KD’s sustained growth and fiend-like scoring binge in January, LBJ’s historic February might not be enough to get him over the line.
For the sake of this article pretend that you’re one of those privileged humans on the voting panel for the MVP ballot. The job ahead is to choose one player in the NBA that, in your opinion, has been the most valuable player on their team throughout the regular season. Yeah, yeah, the 2013-2014 NBA campaign isn’t over yet, so up until now – you understand where I’m going with this, don’t be a pain.
Two elements of Durant’s game this season have left onlookers awestruck: First the way in which he’s closing out tight contests (even more so than usual which is out of this freaking world!). Second the remarkable spike in KD’s statistics when Thunder point guard, Russell Westbrook, has been on the sideline.
At the moment the Oklahoma City Thunder have managed a 54-19 record (third in the league); amid that Durant has averaged 32.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per outing, plus a field goal percentage of 51.2.
It’s common knowledge that #35 is a scoring-machine, but his present feat of logging 25 or more points in 38 consecutive games is impressive for even his high standards. Just six times in the last five decades has someone produced such an amazing scoring streak. ONLY SIX TIMES IN 50 YEARS!
1.Michael Jordan – 40 in 1986
2.Kevin Durant – 38 in 2014 **Current Streak
3.Spencer Haywood – 31 in 1972
4.Bob McAdoo – 29 in 1974
5.Oscar Robinson – 29 in 1964-1965
So who belongs in that number six slot? Take a wild stab.
Kevin Durant – 29 straight in 2010-2011. KD has managed to pull this off twice in four seasons. ONLY SIX TIMES IN 50 YEARS!
The catalyst for Durant’s recent accomplishment was his video-game-like January where the Thunder went 13-4. He closed out the month with these statistics: 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 54.9 FG%, 43.6 3FG%, 89 FT%, in 38.3 minutes. KD scored 30 or more points in 13 games, 40 or more five times, and one 50-plus match where he entered stud-mode and dropped 54 points in a 127-121 victory over the Warriors.
**Stud-Mode: Someone who is in the zone and cannot be stopped**
Durant’s partner in crime, Russell Westbrook, had a routine arthroscopic surgery on the 27th December and was ruled out until after the All-Star break. At the time OKC were 23-5 (second in the Western Conference) and Russell was averaging 21.3 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists in 32.9 minutes of court time: a significant volume of production they’d soon be lacking.
Points Per Game
Field Goal %
Assists Per Game
*** These statistics were current at the time Westbrook went out injured***
If your team’s second best player gets sidelined with an injury, effectively ruling him out for an extended period, you’d do what any normal and respected die-hard fan does: freak out, become poignant, then gratuitously abuse an innocent random on social media. Members of the OKC alliance have been treated to more leeway with this irrational behaviour, considering the apparent struggles they went through in the 2012-2013 playoffs after Westbrook suffered that season-ending injury in their game two matchup versus the Rocket in round one; consequently triggering Patrick Beverly to become reviled by the Thunder faithful.
Instead of getting off track, let’s dabble into KD’s impressive season.
Victims: Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves
115 Oklahoma at Timberwolves 111
Durant by the numbers: 48 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block: 16/32 FG, 4/9 3FG, 12/13 FT.
When you track-back, this run-and-gun meeting is what initiated KD’s reign. He detonated for a season high (at the time) 48-points while overcoming a 13-points deficit in the final 12 minutes. How? KD managed 7 from 11 (including 4 from deep), to tally-up a 23-point fourth quarter. With around 11 seconds left on the clock, KD buried a step-back, fade away jumper that put the Thunder up 113-111. Shit, it was smooth; or “Butter!” as one ESPN commentator would say. Kevin went on and hit two free throws late to seal the win.
Victims: The Splash Brothers and the Golden State Warriors
121 Golden State at Oklahoma 127
Durant by the numbers: 54 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block: 19/28 FG, 5/9 3FG, 11/13 FT.
Just 24 hours after putting away the Rockets in Houston, OKC headed back home for a back-to-back against sharp shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and again it was another extremely efficient night for KD. Durant’s 54 was a career high and his third 50-point performance since entering the league. #35 began by shooting 10/11 from the floor; while at the same stage the whole Warriors’ team had shot 15/25. It was just one of those magical nights; Durant got going and Golden State were playing catch up for the rest of the evening. Each member of that crowd, no matter who they were supporting, will remember this night eternally. Thanks to Durant, the Thunder had a double-digit lead going into the fourth; that didn’t contain him. He drained three 3-pointers in 75 seconds (11 points in 2 minutes), and finished the final quarter with 15-points. It wasn’t like the Warriors were knotting up a sub-par night; they shot 52.4 percent from the floor and 59.3 percent from downtown – Curry and Thompson combined for 63 points (20/35 FG and 12/19 3FG). Durant was in stud-mode.
Victims: Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers
97 Trail Blazers at Oklahoma 105
Durant by the numbers: 46 points, 4 assists, 5 rebounds: 17/25 FG, 6/7 3FG, 6/7 FT.
At the time both teams were 31-10, tied for second in the West (one back from the San Antonio Spurs) – meaning this Western Conference duel was circled on every sport fan’s calendar. The battle had a playoff vibe, it was heated, nine players scored in double figures, one technical foul was dished out, which unfortunately for the Blazers led to a disgruntled Durant recording 11 points in the final 3:23 to secure a comeback win. There isn’t much more to say; Portland learnt a valuable lesson – don’t infuriate Kevin Durant.
Victims: Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs
111 Oklahoma at Spurs 105
Durant by the numbers: 36 points, 4 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block: 12/22 FG, 2/4 3FG, 10/11 FT.
Approaching this heavyweight showdown KD had averaged 38.1 points over the last 11 games. As weird as it sounds, Durant was tremendously efficient early, but struggled to find his shot as top-flight defender Kawhi Leonard went to work with his 7-4 wingspan. Unfortunately for the Spurs, Leonard left the court with a hand injury late in the second quarter and did not return – an enormous moment in the match. Durant struggled with Leonard on him, recording a career-high 7 turnovers in the first half – with Kawhi on the bench KD scored 24 of his 36 points. The game was awfully significant for Reggie Jackson and the Thunder coaching staff; Jackson went for a career-high 27-points and validated any doubts surrounding his role in replacing the injured Westbrook. Once again KD was a beast down the stretch; himself and Reggie combined for 22 points (9/15 FG) in the final quarter.
Victims: Paul Millsap and the Atlanta Hawks
109 Hawks at Thunder 111
Durant by the numbers: 41 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 blocks: 15/25 FG, 5/7 3FG, 6/8 FT.
In a game that oozed post-season intensity, Durant managed to pile on 13 fourth quarter points, which consisted of a go-ahead field goal with 1.5 seconds left after the Thunder had clawed their way back from a 14-points down. Just perusing those stats and match-facts, you’d be content with my justification for KD’s MVP output – but there’s more. After rallying back, Durant produced a 16-foot, step-back jay with 25.5 seconds on the clock to give OKC the lead for the first time since the opening two minutes. Paul Millsap came right back and tied it up, but with 1.5 left, Durant drained that 12-footer (mentioned above) with DeMarre Carroll in his face.
Victims: LeBron James and the Miami Heat
112 Thunder at Heat 95
Durant by the numbers: 33 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals: 12/23 FG, 4/9 3FG, 5/5 FT.
This matchup proved to be meaningful; we discovered the obvious gap between LeBron and Durant was no longer evident. Halfway through the first quarter OKC found themselves on the wrong side of an 18-point margin. Before tip-off, history would show that these two had met 16 times, with Durant coming out victorious on just three occasions. KD led the fight back showcasing his improved defensive; when guarded by Durant, LeBron was just 2-6 FGs with 8-points; with any other player marking him, he was 10/14 from the floor. Following some game-changing defensive, Durant and his Thunder got a stranglehold on the game shortly after half time. My favourite sequence came late in the third quarter as KD and LBJ went toe-to-toe (Rucker Park-style); the two scored 14-points in the final 2:34. It was epic!
As Mike Breen said, it was “back and forth between the two best players in the NBA” – doesn’t get much better.
Victims: James Harden and the Houston Rockets
104 Oklahoma at Houston 94
Durant by the numbers: 43 points, 2 assists, 5 rebounds: 16/32 FG, 4/9 3FG, 12/13 FT.
Victims: Paul Pierce and the New Jersey Nets
120 Oklahoma at Nets 85
Durant by the numbers: 26 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and 1 steal: 10/12 FG, 3/3 3FG, 3/3 FT.
All these performances are impressive enough, but the truly remarkable element is how Durant tweaked his game to benefit his teammates. Durant’s 6.1 assists in January were the most of any full month throughout his six seasons. KD’s statistics read 97 dimes in January, 14 more than his former career-high. Understanding the challenging situation Oklahoma were in and acting accordingly is the mark of a player who possess a high basketball IQ; it also illustrates the growth in Durant’s physiological capacity. Losing your point guard, one would assume OKC’s assists per game would drop heavily, but the Thunder averaged 21 assists in January, just 1.9 less than December. Durant is the reason Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher all had season-high averages in the first month of the New Year.
Acknowledging the rough times ahead for your franchise is one thing; getting it done on the court is another component all together. I won’t harp on about it again (run through the games above if you’ve somehow already forgotten), but the number of times Durant went into stud-mode and converted on big shots is totally unmatched by any player in the NBA this season.
There is well and truly a valid argument that LeBron’s February was just as or even more extraordinary than Durant’s January, yet in terms of MVP ranking, it would vary depending on which way you perceive them.
Elias Sports Bureau quoted that LeBron was the first person since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1983 to have shot greater than 64 percent from the floor, on at least 200 attempts, over a full NBA month. On the back of LeBron’s 61.4 percent in February, Miami went 9-1, which included this ice-cold buzzer-beater from LBJ.
Because of the All-Star break in February, teams played a considerably less amount of games. As I just specified, Miami played ten games in the second month of the year, James sat out one Heat match and only took to the floor ten times (including the All-Star game) with an incredible eighteen days off; plus only once did LBJ partake in a back-to-back. Moreover, Dwyane Wade participated in eight of those ten while Chris Bosh was on the floor for every matchup throughout the month.
In January alone Durant played in seventeen games, three were back-to-backs, and had just fourteen days off the court. Russell Westbrook didn’t play once all month.
So, in your opinion, who has been more valuable to their franchise?
Yeah LeBron threw up an impressive career-high 61-points against the Charlotte Bobcats (a below .500 team) but Miami went 10-7 in March. Not to mention that eleven of those contents were versus Eastern Conference sides and as we all know, the Eastern Conference is much weaker that the West this season.
**Ninth place in the West (Memphis 44-30) would be third in the East (Toronto sit at the three spot on 42-32). Teams play sides in the opposite conference just twice all season, and teams in their own conference up to four times**
So while LeBron and the Heat have the much simpler chore of taking on the below-par teams from the East, Durant’s must overcome Westbrook’s injury while battling against sides such as the Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Portland, Golden State, Phoenix and Dallas.
All of KD’s examples and statistics above were from January alone. Since the beginning of February, Oklahoma has gone 16-10 and are winners of eleven out of the last fifteen. Durant’s chalked up an astonishing eight games with 30 or more points, six 40-plus outings, and one 50-plus performance that included a go-ahead three-pointer with 1.7 seconds left in double overtime versus the Raptors – oh yeah, Russell Westbrook went off injured in the third quarter (KD had 14-points in that period) and OKC were playing on the road in Toronto.
The meaning of MVP is the Most Valuable Player; if you were to take LeBron out of Miami’s lineup, and Durant out of OKC’s lineup, which team would suffer more? The Heat would simply delegate more responsibility to Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Thunder? As much as I wish Derek Fisher had the capability of making up Durant’s 32.2 points per game, I have my doubts surrounding his ability to do so.
(I love Derek Fisher: Stud-Mode)
It was just a few years back that NBA enthusiasts, including myself, were discussing how Durant constantly lived in LeBron’s shadow. KD has paid his dues and is about to be rewarded. If one was to argue that LeBron James is a better player that Kevin Durant, they would still have a very legitimate case. In terms of who has been the most valuable player in the NBA throughout the 2013-2014 season, there’s no way in hell that person isn’t Kevin Durant.
(Statistics form ESPN.com)
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