By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com
Kevin Durant knew he needed to take on a larger role within the Oklahoma City Thunder offense once Russell Westbrook was forced to undergo a third knee surgery on December 27.
It’s one thing to know a larger contribution is needed, it’s another thing to do what Durant has done as of late. However, his improved play has not just been to help replace Westbrook, but also to prove he is more than just a top-three player in the NBA.
“People always say, ‘It’s cool, you’re top three, that’s cool. It’s alright to be a top three player in the world. There’s billions of people in this world and you’re top three? That’s pretty cool,’ ” Durant said during a recent profile on 60 Minutes. “I’m just tired of settling for that. I’m tired of saying that. Tired of hearing it.”
In the seven games since Westbrook’s surgery, Durant has proven his point. He’s averaging 35 points, 5.4 assists, 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 10.6 free-throw attempts per game over the stretch. He’s shooting 51.4 percent from the field and set the NBA season high for scoring twice with 48 points.
It’s been a masterful domination. Unfortunately, Durant can’t win games all by himself. The Thunder are just 4-3 over this stretch, including an embarrassing 112-101 defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz, who hold the worst record in the Western Conference (although Serge Ibaka also missed this game with flu-like symptoms).
Westbrook hopes to return before the All-Star break. But if the Thunder hope to keep their slim lead on the first seed in the Western Conference (and home court throughout the playoffs), then they will need the rest of their roster to step-up their game alongside Durant.