ATLANTA — The final step in Kevin Durant‘s evolution from budding superstar to bona fide showman has been a work in progress over the past three seasons.
The three-time scoring champion has always been about substance over flash, a trait that has separated him from some of his high-scoring predecessors. But the ability to stun, silence and then send a road crowd for the exits before the final buzzer is a quality only a handful of true superstars are able to manage on a nightly basis.
Durant did all that and more Wednesday night, turning the Hawks’ “Highlight Factory” into his personal playground in the second half of a 100-92 win — the Thunder’s 12th straight.
Durant scored 28 of his season-high 41 points after halftime, 18 during a wicked fourth-quarter stretch of brilliance, having already ceded the first half to Russell Westbrook and his 21-point assault.
The Thunder are basically unstoppable when these two play the way they did against the Hawks. They are 11-1 this season when both of their All-Stars score 20 or more points.
Durant was 14-for-23 from the floor, 4-for-8 from deep and nailed nine of his 10 free throws. He also added 13 rebounds, three assists and two blocks (though had that many on one particular play). Westbrook finished his night with 27 points, a game-high 11 assists, two steals and a block while recording his 10th double-double of the season.
But Durant’s work from one end of the floor to the other during one wild stretch in the third quarter is what allows him to knock on your door and take over the place away from home.
The Hawks cut a 16-point lead to just four, 73-69, when Josh Smith spun into the paint with Durant guarding him and went up three times only to be stopped by Durant each and every time. Durant finished the sequence at the other end with a dunk over Smith and, after being fouled on the play, he stepped into the crowd behind the basket and pounded his chest. He shouted, “this is my house,” with a colorful adjective tossed in for good measure and toward the fans sitting near courtside who spent a good portion of the night jawing at the visiting team.
“Uh, I don’t remember [saying] that,” Durant said and then laughed.
But it wasn’t about him showboating as much as it was him stating the obvious.
“We double-teamed him, we zoned him,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “He still made shots. You can’t stop him when he’s hot like that.
“[The Thunder are] a very talented team. Durant is as good as there is in this league. Russell Westbrook is one of the top point guards in this league. You really have to be on the money with your coverage on them, and you also have to make sure you have a backup coverage. Those guys are capable of getting it going, and once they get it going, they’re a tough team to defend.”
How about impossible, when Durant and Westbrook are on like they were on this night.
Durant insisted that he was just being aggressive and taking whatever shots the defensive gave him after halftime. He admitted to taking some questionable shots as well, but when your range is anywhere within the metropolitan area you are playing in that night, what’s the big deal?
“I’ve seen it so many times,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, “I know when he gets hot, it’s hard to turn him off. And he was hot in that second half. I didn’t realize he had 41. But I very rarely look at the guys’ individual scores.
“I thought that second half he was making shots but he was just being much more aggressive. Some of his turnovers in the first half were just [him] being a little lackadaisical with the ball. In the second half was very physical with his first dribble, and when he’s physical with his first dribble it’s very hard to stay in front of him.”
Durant had one of his worst shooting games of the season (7-for-17) in a 104-95 loss to these Hawks Nov. 4 in Oklahoma City. They’re 20-2 since then and Durant looks every bit like the scoring machine everyone saw in the summer during the London Olympics, when he carved up the competition from distance as well as inside the 3-point arc.
Durant’s growing more and more comfortable with his role as not only the Thunder’s vocal and emotional leader but also as one of the true showstoppers in the game (the role guys like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony relish, especially on the road.) And it’s a sight to behold when he’s in the zone the way he was after halftime against the Hawks.
“I think the best part about it is my teammates wanted me to shoot it, they always give me confidence,” he said. “I felt good. Russell got me going. I just tried to exploit the matchups, make the right passes sand stay aggressive.”