HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Behold the NBA’s most compelling two-man race to the scoring title since … last season.
A year ago Oklahoma City scoring machine Kevin Durant held off legendary point-producer Kobe Bryant when Bryant sat out the Los Angeles Lakers’ season finale at Sacramento and conceded the chance to catch Durant. OKC’s young gun won his third consecutive scoring title by the microscopic margin of 28.03 ppg to 27.86 ppg.
It’s about half the gap that the sizzling Carmelo Anthony has seized over Durant — 28.56 to 28.25. Anthony, who passed LeBron James with the NBA’s top-selling jersey on Tuesday, nudged in front of Durant for the scoring lead on Sunday with 36 points to Durant’s 27 in their head-to-head battle won by the Knicks.
Kobe, the holder of consecutive scoring titles a half-dozen years ago and currently holding steady in third (27.0 ppg), famously said of sitting out: “The scoring title is not that important. We know I can do it. We know I can go out and score 38 points. The most important thing is sending the right message to the group, which is putting a championship above all else.”
Which might be the the message Durant is now sending to his Thunder teammates as they gear up for a run at consecutive West titles and a desperately wanted Finals rematch against the Miami Heat. After all, the last scoring champ to raise a championship banner was Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000.
Consider Tuesday night’s action. The Thunder won at Utah to move within a half-game of San Antonio for the West’s top seed. Durant managed a light-shooting night (6-for-10) while finishing one assist shy of a fourth triple-double this season (21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists).
Meanwhile in New York, Anthony was at it again, draining 13-for-21 from the floor for 36 points as the Knicks secured their first Atlantic Division title since 1994 and tightened their grip on the East’s No. 2 seed. Their sizzling superstar has averaged 40.6 ppg over the last five games while Durant has averaged just a tick below his season average.
Last week Durant told Anthony that he can have the scoring title. Even with the historical significance of becoming the first player to win four consecutive scoring titles since Michael Jordan won seven in a row 20 years ago, Durant said he’s rooting for his Team USA teammate to win his first.
“Carmelo, Kevin, LeBron, Kobe, there’s a lot of guys that really, if they really, really wanted to lead the league in scoring they could score over 30 points a game and they could run away with it,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, an assistant with Denver for three seasons with Anthony. “But those guys are about trying to win a championship, about trying to do what’s right for the team and there’s no question scoring is important for their teams. Kevin needs to score for us to be successful, but that’s not the only thing that he does.”
Durant has been the more efficient scorer of the two and he remains on pace to become the sixth player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent at the free-throw line. With four games left he’s at: 50.6, 41.2 and 90.7. He would become the first player ever to win the scoring title and achieve 50-40-90 in the same season.
The Knicks have five games left, including a pair against two of the NBA’s stingiest defenses: at Chicago (Thursday) and at home against Indiana (Sunday). Still, against the teams New York plays (also Cleveland, Charlotte and Atlanta), Anthony is averaging 28.0 ppg, and that includes just six points in 14 minutes in his only meeting with the Cavs.
Down the stretch they come and Melo’s got the inside track with his closest competitor cheering him on.