Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Durant Buries Blazers, Makes MVP Case

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OKLAHOMA CITY - They're piling on the KEVIN DURANT MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

"The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?" said Blazers forward NICOLAS BATUM, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league's runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. "When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

"He's the MVP. He's the MVP," Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. "I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years."

Durant's hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers' 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following RUSSELL WESTBROOK's latest setback after Christmas.

They've knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Set up Wednesday night in San Antonio are the Spurs with first place in the West on the line.

And as if anybody needs reminding about the Thunder's potential, that bespectacled, young fellow wearing skinny jeans and a form-fitting sport coat cheering on the Thunder bench will eventually return.

For now, Durant is putting together a run for the ages. Since Westbrook was lost to a third knee surgery, Durant has padded a resume that today has him atop the MVP race he's run a strong second for several years to LEBRON JAMES. Tuesday's ultra-efficient 46 points came on 17 made baskets on 25 attempts.

But then that's becoming old news, too. When he put 54 on the Warriors he did it on 19-for-28 shooting. He only needs a couple percentage points from the free throw line to again be in 50-40-90 territory.

"I'm not just being biased, he's at an MVP-type level," teammate KENDRICK PERKINS said. "Right now, if you had to give an award away today you'd have to give it to Kevin Durant."

Tuesday's 46 marked the fourth time in the last 10 games he's scored at least 46. He's also hit 48, twice. He's scored more than 30 in the last eight games, the longest such streak of his career. In the last 14 games without his superstar buddy at the point, Durant has averaged 36.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.6 apg and just 2.9 turnovers in 38.1 mpg. He's coming off and has already been named the conference's Player of the Month for the first two months.

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

"You know Perkins giving his body up for me, SERGE [IBAKA] is giving his body up, NICK [COLLISON] and STEVEN [ADAMS] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it's on me to finish," Durant said. "So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It's far more than just me; it's a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [SCOTT BROOKS] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down."

Most impressive is Durant, who also had five rebounds and four assists, is forcing nothing. Everything is coming within the offense. At the half, Jackson had 12 shot attempts to Durant's 11. Ibaka had nine. JEREMY LAMB had six. Durant scored 15 points in 12 minutes of the first quarter; five points in five minutes in the second; 12 points in 12 minutes in the third; and 14 in nine minutes in the fourth.

"MVP performance," Blazers coach TERRY STOTTS said. "I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn't force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots."

For much of the game, Stotts' own star, LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, went punch-for-punch with Durant, finishing with 29 points and 16 rebounds, but Thunder center KENDRICK PERKINS held him to 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Blazers, who won in OKC on New Year's Eve with a late comeback, simply ran out of gas playing a third game in four nights and the second of a back-to-back.

Even so, the Thunder took the game and again sounded the alarm that they are a team in every sense of the word -- deep, together, defensive and determined. Durant is a monster and a title run is going to require a full-throttle Westbrook, a reality that now only seems a matter of time, but this is arguably the most complete team of the Thunder era.

It is, inarguably, the most ferocious defensive team in the WesternConference. In the final moments of the Thunder win, Ibaka collected blocks four and five on the same possession. The much-maligned Perkins made a crucial block, got a late steal and buried a 14-foot baseline jumper for a 99-95 lead with 1:36 left.

"I just like our approach to the game," Durant said. "We're just playing hard. We're moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We're just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we're doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven't gotten down on ourselves, we haven't felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case."

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