The best games keep you up at night. And after what Kevin Durant did Wednesday, single-handedly destroying the Denver Nuggets, it took a solid 90 minutes for me to fall asleep.
Naturally, the NBA Playoffs have been leaving just about everyone low on sleep these days. Not only do you stay to watch it all, but it's been so exhilarating so often, it's tough to just fall asleep afterward. But Kevin Durant took things a whole 'nother level on Wednesday.
He scored 41 points to kill the Nuggets, but that doesn't quite do it justice. Plenty of guys have exploded over the past two weeks; that's why we're in the midst of the best NBA Playoffs season in the last twenty years. There's more talent than ever in the NBA, and everyone's stepping up, and the whole league has captivated us. But what KD did to Denver was something else.
For the final five minutes Wednesday, Kevin Durant was the best player on earth. He scored 14 of OKC's final 18 points--turnaround jumpers, spot-up threes, floaters in the lane, and the dagger, a sprint up the court, and then a pull-up at the top of the key, right in a defender's face.
That's why KD kept me up half the night. Maybe it's just me that does this, but after a game like that, how can anyone just turn off the TV and go to sleep? The same way an athlete tosses and turns after a game goes wrong, wondering what might have been, even when I finally get to bed, I end thinking about what a game it was, and what could still be.
So, what was that game? It was the first time we've ever seen KD do that in the playoffs. He's never gone to that place before. Where nobody else on the court even matters.
After the Thunder lost Game 4 in Denver, a lot of the talk centered on Russell Westbrook, who took 30 shots in the loss while Durant and the rest of his teammates looked on. Over at CBS Sports, Royce Young highlighted the two most poignant plays that night:
With 30 seconds left and OKC trailing 98-96, Westbrook wasn't able to get the ball to Durant on the wing so with the shot clock winding down, Westbrook fired a 3. It rimmed out. Then with the Thunder down 101-98 and needing a 3 to tie with 10 seconds left, Westbrook took the ball on his own and airballed a 3-pointer with six seconds left as Durant stood waiting by the arc.
Mind you, KD and Westbrook are close friends, and it's not as if KD has ever had a problem sharing the spotlight with his teammates. A year ago, when Sports Illustrated tried to put him on the cover, he demanded they include some of OKC's role players on the cover, too. That's how Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
After TNT caught them in a heated exchange during Game 4, Durant downplayed it, saying "That's a part of a basketball team. You're not going to always be happy all the time. … Sometimes you have to scream at guys for them to get the point. That's what we were doing."
So, no problems right? No, not off the court. Not in the media.
But my favorite moment Wednesday came when the final buzzer sounded, and TNT cameras caught Durant for a close-up. Reading his lips, it sure looked like he said, "THIS MY MOTHERF***IN TEAM. LET'S GO." He was still on the court at the time.
And on the court, Kevin Durant's a whole different person. That what makes him so fascinating as an NBA superstar. He's the perfect antithesis to LeBron. While LeBron sells himself as this larger-than-life brand off the court, when it comes to crunch time, he's more unsure. With Durant, it's the exact opposite. He doesn't care about being any more famous than Westbrook or anyone else, but on the court, he wants the ball as badly as every other NBA star that's ever been great.
It's his mother f'ing team.
As for what comes next? That was the other thing that kept me awake. This was the level we've been waiting for KD to hit since he entered the league. "First time in the playoffs I felt this confidence," he said afterward. This is where we remind you that Kevin Durant's only 22 years old.
And if this is a tipping point for him, we could be in for something special over the next month or so. A coronation of sorts. In my playoff preview, I predicted the Bulls would come out of the East and the Thunder in the West. But if Kevin Durant's going to play like this for the next month, wouldn't be it cooler if it was the Heat they face in the finals? You know, just cut through all the hype. Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Winner takes the crown.
Plenty of people doubted me back in October, when I said Kevin Durant would emerge as the best player in the league this season. And as the season went on, even I began to doubt it. He was very good, but not quite great. Maybe that was his destiny. To be a killer scorer, but not quite the same as Kobe or LeBron or Chris Paul—sort of like Dirk Nowitzki.
But Wednesday, we saw what everyone had been looking for in Kevin Durant. We saw what made me think he could take over the league, and take LeBron's spot atop the throne. He wasn't just the best player on a great team. For one night, he was the best basketball player on the planet, and had everyone that cares about basketball tossing, turning, and wondering.
Like, "If THAT's possible for him, then what does this mean for everyone else?"
Even without Durant going into takeover mode, the NBA Playoffs have been unbelievable so far. But for any sporting event to resonate in a meaningful way, you need some history. Not just big time performances, but watershed moments. Stuff that changes the way we think about the sport. And THAT is where we could be headed with Kevin Durant.
Whether it's gliding down the lane for way-too-easy floaters, twisting his way to dead-eye turnaround jumpers, or nailing pull-up jumpers in defenders' faces, this could be the future.
Wednesday, for the first time ever, we saw what it looks like for Kevin Durant to take over in the playoffs. OKC has always been his team, but now he's shown us why. The only question now is whether this is the year that he takes over the whole damn league.