HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kendrick Perkins told us so earlier this summer.
“We’re all watching Kevin growing into a man. He’s becoming a man,” Perkins said. “Not to say he wasn’t before, but he’s becoming his own man, and Kevin wants to be the best. He wants to be the best player in the NBA.”
Kevin Durant all grown up in this league — resolute, robust, refined — must scare the heck out of the poor souls whose job it is to match up against him. Entering the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fourth of seven preseason games Thursday night against the intriguing New Orleans Pelicans, Durant is making it look so easy that it doesn’t seem fair. Even while his teammates struggle to throw it in the ocean, Durant is shooting 55.3 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 27.0 points and 6.3 assists. Even without All-Star running mate Russell Westbrook, OKC is 3-0 and averaging 102.3 ppg.
Durant is doing it all, expanding his repertoire within the flow of the game and context of the Thunder’s scheme. He scored 36 points in 23 minutes in Tuesday’s win at Denver. Before that he dished out 12 assists with 21 points to beat Philadelphia.
With Westbrook’s sudden exit from the 2013 postseason, Durant tried to carry the franchise on his shoulders, a desperation forced by the urgency of the moment and the impossibility of a team built on a two-star system to adjust to one star, on the fly. Five months later, Durant’s guiding hand and evolving leadership are lessons absorbed over an offseason and being implemented in the preseason. With Westbrook expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season, the Thunder, with Durant as ringmaster, are polishing up their act.
If Durant can lead OKC to a sparkling record through Christmas, he will pad his MVP resume early and open a gap that perhaps even the great LeBron James won’t be able to close.
A fast start without Westbrook is possible. OKC’s first six games, seven of its first 10 and 11 of its first 18 are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season. But even an all-grown-up Durant will have limits as defenses undoubtedly pressure him to give up the ball.
His teammates will have to rise for OKC to charge out of the gates. As scary as Durant looks through three preseason games, the rest of the Thunder have been frightful: Durant is 31-for-56; his teammates are 83-for-194 (42.8 percent). Durant is 8-for-17 from 3-point range; his teammates are 5-for-41 (12.2 percent).
Much of the preseason spotlight is shining on second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, just because his shooting has been exceptionally poor. Expected to contribute perimeter shooting as a backup, Lamb hasn’t gotten off to a confidence-inducing start. He’s 9-for-33 overall,1-for-13 from beyond the arc, 0-for-9 in his last two games.
He has been a pleasant surprise on the defensive end with eight steals and four blocks.
“They’re not falling right now,” coach Scott Brooks said of Lamb’s shots after he went 3-for-12 in Tuesday’s 109-81 over the Nuggets. “But there’s no reason to not believe that they will.”
There’s also no reason to believe that Durant won’t continue to flourish when the real games start. Still, even Superman needs a hand from time to time.