NEW YORK -- Since the past 12 games for Kevin Durant have seemed like an optical illusion, with Durant inserting himself into debates no one could have expected, perhaps it made sense that when we in the media entered the Thunder locker room on Friday night in Brooklyn, it appeared that Durant was set for a space expedition.
There sat the best player on the planet at the moment, with only the existence of LeBron James turning that distinction into conversation, in a black air compression suit wrapped around both of his legs, extending up to his waist, and down well beyond his feet. A large pair of red headphones rested on his ears. And an entire room looked carefully at Durant the way anyone with a passing interest in basketball has in this astonishing season, trying to figure out how this 25-year-old has upset the generational succession, Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James.
Durant, who drew laughter from Doris Burke after crushing James and the Miami Heat on Wednesday night when he gave all the credit for his recent performance to Jesus, had a point when he mentioned that his streak of 11 30-point games in a row wasn't a complete surprise.
"I mean, it's not the first time I've scored 30 points in a game," Durant said, smiling slightly as he said it, knowing he was treading a thin line between answering the question honestly -- he is a three-time scoring champion already, at 25 -- and sounding arrogant. "I've scored in this league before. It's not like a stretch which came totally out of left field. I mean, I want to say this as humbly as possible. Not arrogant at all. But I've done it before. Maybe not 30 11 games in a row.
"People talk about a streak, but I'm not worried about that. I'm going to go out there and do what I've done the past six years."
No one would argue that Durant has been anything less than a superstar since, essentially, his second year in the NBA, when the 20-year-old scored 25.3 points per game, hit 42 percent of his threes, and topped 20 PER for the first time. A season later, he jumped to 26.2 PER, and in 2011-12, after a season at only 23.6 PER, he returned to 26.2 PER once again.
"I'm not trying to soften what he has done," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said prior to the game on Friday. "But he's been on a tear for a long time. He's been at a level that not a lot of guys, at his age -- he's been a leading scorer at age 22. I don't know if he was the youngest. I can't recall." (He was.) "He's done things that a lot of guys don't do. He's playing at a high level, but I'm telling you, he's playing at a high level defensively."
And that's just great. Really excellent. But 26.2 won't even land you in the top 100 PER seasons of all time. Larry Bird's 1986-87 season, at 26.4, is 100th.
Depending on how much you like PER (I like it, particularly when comparing number one options, who are presumably all getting roughly the same boost from their usage rates), it's fairly easy to pare down the very best of the NBA, all-time, to three. Of the top 10 PER seasons, three are owned by LeBron James. Four are owned by Michael Jordan. And three, including the top two of all time, belong to Wilt Chamberlain.
There are strong arguments to be made for each as the best player in NBA history. But it's difficult to argue for anyone else, and that makes a good bit of chronological sense. Wilt debuted in 1959, and played until 1973. Jordan showed up 11 years later, and played until 2003. He and LeBron never shared the league, with James debuting in 2003-04.
Each generation had one player at this level, a level, incredibly, beyond Larry Bird, beyond Kareem, beyond David Robinson.
Except Durant, apparently, wasn't finished developing. He reached 28.3 PER last year, cracking the top 100 and resting at 43rd all time.
This year? He's ninth. Ever. 31.1. That's precisely the PER LeBron James and Michael Jordan put up at age 25. He's broken into the holy trinity (and not the one he credited Wednesday night). His usage is up, but his shooting percentage is just as good, and his assists are up significantly. He's doing everything well. He's a fundamentally different player than Jordan, or LeBron, or Wilt, as different as the three of them are from one another.
But he's in the conversation. Something's changed.
Jason Kidd certainly sees it. He was asked about just a few years ago, when Kidd was tasked with guarding Durant in the playoffs.
"He's gotten better," Kidd said of Durant prior to the game. "I think he's seen double-, triple-teams. He's a guy that isn't afraid to get better, isn't afraid of that stage of taking last shot, of work ethic, as documented throughout the summer. There's nothing I really could pass on, because he's really developed as a player, from two years ago, three years ago. I think I just got lucky, that's all."
Durant's introduction drew a mixture of boos and cheers. The role of villain is too new for Durant -- he hasn't broken anyone's heart in Brooklyn yet. But precisely the problem he presents a defense was clear immediately. Deron Williams drew the assignment on an early possession, keeping Durant from penetrating. So Durant sank a three over him. One possession later, the Thunder got the ball to Durant about 12 feet from the basket. Before a double-team could come Durant quickly turned and fired. The crowd oohed appreciatively. They know something we don't often see is happening, right now.
Durant insisted he wasn't just looking to score, and both his overall statistics and the flow of the game supported his contention. Exactly how impossible it is to plan for Durant was obvious in a single play when Durant found himself out on the perimeter, guarded by Williams. This would be a situation where every other seven footer in history would be at the decided disadvantage. Maybe, on occasion, one could shoot. No one at this size can handle like Durant. And maybe no one his height could pass this well, either.
"Kevin can score a lot of points," Brooks said. "But he's not a selfish player. Sometimes its hard not to look at that guy who led the league three out of the last four years in scoring, but he's a team guy. He's a complete basketball player."
True to form, Durant did all three at once. He somehow ducked under Williams, maintaining his dribble, and found a cutting Serge Ibaka for an open jumper. It's an optical illusion, no stranger than if Durant had taken off into orbit after completing his pregame interview. But it's happening.
The Nets switched Alan Anderson, a gifted 6-foot-6 defender, onto Durant. But it really didn't matter. Durant repeatedly posted up Anderson, no differently than he dribbled past the smaller Williams. Anderson fouled him as he sank the 15-footer, and the crowd grew a bit restless, the Thunder extending their lead to double digits. The greatness of Durant, on tour all season, at a level few have seen from any player of late, was ruining the night of the home team.
It was hard to see what the Nets could have done differently, though. They weren't even overcommitting on Durant. They sent long Shaun Livingston out to bother Durant on the perimeter. Durant faded back and sank a three. OK, fine. The next possession, they threw three defenders at Durant as he penetrated to the free-throw line. No problem, Durant found a wide-open Ibaka for a dunk to extend the lead to 27. After a timeout, Livingston and a double-team stopped Durant's momentum at the free-throw line. No big deal, fadeaway jumper. Back to one defender, next time down. Durant drilled a three.
It just didn't matter what the Nets did. Thunder by 29. No one seemed upset in the crowd, like a collective appreciation in the crowd of something bigger than a Nets-Thunder game was taking place.
"When you play against teams, they're obviously going to pay close attention to him," Brooks said of Durant. "There's a lot of smart coaches in this league. I don't even think you have to be smart to know that. You're going to guard Kevin with five players. And he's done a good job of finding guys, and I think we've done a good job of, as a group, putting him in spots where it's hard for him to get doubled quickly, and it's easier for him to make quicker decisions.
"Give him credit for making plays. He's a playmaker, first and foremost."
This is a Nets team that had won 10 of 12. And Durant made them look like their last victims, the Miami Heat, who couldn't stay close to the Thunder. That's the defending champs. At home. Featuring LeBron James.
It's worth noting, before you give up on LeBron James in this particular discussion, that the Thunder beyond Durant are playing much better right now than the Heat beyond James. No one would (or should, at any rate) see a single game between teams as indicative of the relative merits of two individual players, especially when Durant and James had virtually identical stat lines.
"You know, you can concern yourself with just Durant, and the other guys can beat you," Kidd said prior to the game. "Those other guys are playing at a high level, too. You talk about [Jeremy] Lamb and [Reggie] Jackson, it's not just Durant. Those guys are also executing, knocking down shots."
It may simply be that NBA opponents are going to need to concern themselves with stopping everyone else other than Kevin Durant. I scanned the NBA schedule for when Indiana and Paul George would face the Thunder.
Oh, right. Last month. Durant scored 36. The Thunder won by 24 points.
But even as Durant has this season among seasons, LeBron James is still at a 28.7 PER, good for 35th all-time if his season ended today, and two slots ahead of Wilt's age-28 season. It's worth noting that of the top 21 PER seasons ever, not one came from a player as old as James is now, 29.
But let's also put this in perspective: James is still an epic talent, with a season that would rank as most valuable in many other NBA campaigns. He isn't going anywhere. We're going to get the chance, for a while, to watch two of possibly (if Durant can stay healthy through his prime, rather than suffer the fate of 17th best PER season ever Tracy McGrady) four best players of all-time play in the same league. MJ and Wilt, in the same league, at the same time.
And the scariest part is, if Durant gets any better, Chamberlain's 31.8 is within reach. Durant believes he will, and it is easy to picture a bigger, stronger, faster Durant setting a new standard for play. If that sounds like hyperbole, well, Durant is already at the level of the very best. So it won't take much improvement to make that final leap.
"I think I keep growing in every part of my game," Durant said. "I never think it's settled what I can do as a player. Just learning the game more, learning game-by-game, learning from my mistakes. I can definitely be better at them. Physically, just getting stronger is gonna help. Just growing the skills I do have, and trying to find new ways to get better. Different moves, different shots. Different ways of setting up my teammates.
"Just trying to learn, and also watching the other great players in the league."
He also watched the fourth quarter, and watched his streak of 30-plus points end, simply because of his own efficient play. Up by 30 after three, the Thunder took the opportunity to give Durant a quarter off after he made 10 of 12 shot attempts, adding seven assists for good measure. Every other similar streak of 30-plus points, whether from Shaquille O'Neal, or Kobe Bryant, or even Michael Jordan, ended thanks to a bit of an off night. Not Durant.
When it was over, Brooks, intentionally or not, channeled that old joke about Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, explaining why he didn't put Durant back in the game for the sake of the streak.
"I would never ask him to go back in the game. He's going to be in the league for a long time and he's probably going to get another streak like this again. It's not like he had a bad basketball game. I guess you can say that in the last 12 or 13 games, I'm the only one who can stop him from scoring 30.
"If he cared about the streak, he should've made those two shots."