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Kevin Durant: Live at Madison Square Garden!

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I didn't know entirely what to expect when I headed to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night to see Kevin Durant and the OKC Thunder take on a Knick team that had just held a meet-and-greet about 24 hours before.  With a series of trade deadline deals earlier this week, the Knicks revamped their entire team with the primary goal of shedding salary to make a run at LeBron James in free agency next year.  Secondarily, they also managed to acquire a player in Tracy McGrady to at least temporarily satiate New York fans' vainglorious need for a superstar.  I perhaps underestimated this aspect of the NYC sport fan psyche when I thought that the ever-realistic Garden faithful might treat him for what he ultimately is: an expiring contract.  But it became apparent as I walked through the tunnel during pre-game introductions that this was misguided. 

McGrady was introduced in the coveted last spot and received an ovation so raucous that you might have been forgiven for craning your neck to see if Willis Reed was limping onto the court from the locker room.  The first time T-Mac touched the ball, the same thing happened.  His first basket--a layup 'and one' with a high degree of difficulty--the crowd exploded.  In the fourth quarter after an 8 minute absence from the game, a quiet "We want T-Mac" chant arose from behind the Knick bench and spread like wildfire to the entire arena.  Loudspeaker exhortations to scream "DE - FENSE" quickly morphed into "T - MAC."  When Mike D'Antoni finally sent McGrady to the scorer's table and onto the court, the Garden exploded and then abruptly and hilariously shifted into angry boos as the refs sent him back to the sideline to wait until the next clock stoppage to enter the game.

All of which is to say that this was supposed to be Tracy McGrady's night at MSG.  And in a way, it was.  He played very well, scoring 26 points in 32 minutes on 10-17 shooting.  And at this point, Knicks fans aren't particularly concerned with winning games; they just want a team they can cheer for.  They want excitement.  They want a superstar.

And they got one last night.  His name is Kevin Durant.

"I think he’s going to be one of the best players in the league. We’re kind of seeing
it unfold. And to be a player on the team is a lot of fun. He’ll be one of those guys
that you’ll be able to tell people when you’re done playing you got to play with. He’s
a good kid and he works hard. I don’t see anything that’s going to stop him from being
one of the best players to play in the league." - Nick Collison

Watching Durant in person is a counterintuitive case study in what it means to be an NBA superstar.  Unlike LeBron, Kobe, Jordan, Iverson or even McGrady, he doesn't command the undivided attention of an entire arena at all times, he isn't the focal point of the offense on every possession, and, as Knicks fans sitting around around me commented, he doesn't really look like he's even trying.  Add on top of that his appearance--he still looks like a kid who hit a puberty growth spurt about 15 minutes ago--and you have an incredibly unique superstar.

In my lifetime, the only other counterintuitive superstar that I can think of is Tim Duncan.  Like Durant, Duncan has a low-key court presence, and like Duncan, Durant can put up a "quiet" 36, like he did last night.  They both rely on point guards to run the offense (it can't be overstated how phenomenal and important to the Thunder that Russell Westbrook is; he threw up a 31-9-10 yesterday and got to the rim at will), but take command when they're needed.

Also somewhat counterintuitively, however, I think that the best superstar comparison to Durant is one Lebron James.  It sounds odd because their games are so diametrically opposed.  Durant is silky-smooth, with no wasted motions and an unlimited shooting range, while James is a barreling missile of a "human being" (pending DNA testing) whose physicality, unmatched court vision and athleticism are his greatest assets (with his deep range being his biggest achilles heel -- though perhaps that's best stated as his "achilles little toe"). 

But what strikes me as similar about these two is that, with completely different styles, they both appear to be playing different games than everyone else.  While Kobe or Jordan always appeared to be on a higher plane than the rest of the NBA, LeBron and Durant appear to be in a different dimension.  Durant just appears to be floating on the court, deciding at various intervals, "I will score now." And he does.  With what appears to be little to no effort, unlike anything I've ever seen.  If LeBron James is a guided missile, then Kevin Durant is a glider airplane.  If LeBron is a centaur on the court, then KD is an atmospheric beast. Or something. One struggles to describe these two in basketball terms.

I don't mean to pass judgment on whether this "separate dimension" conception of basketball is better than the "higher plane" in terms of winning games (Wilt Chamberlain was by all accounts playing a different game than the rest of the NBA in his time, and his teams weren't always winners), but it's striking to see what players like that can do when they can effectively not play by the presumed physical rules of the game.

"We knew there was going to be a lot of energy in the building with Tracy McGrady being here.
He played phenomenal. He's back. But I'll take the win." -Kevin Durant

Last night at the Garden was not one of Durant's best games.  He started out cold as the Knicks built a double-digit lead while Russell Westbrook kept OKC in the game as best he could.  And this makes it all the more astounding that the New York Daily News headline this morning read "Maybe Donnie Walsh's next pursuit should be Kevin Durant after stunning performance."  Durant ended up with 36-5-3, and, with the Garden buzzing and as loud as its been in years, hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 6 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime (exuberantly saluting the crowd on his way back to the bench), and then in the final 16 seconds of OT gave the Thunder a lead with a pull-up jumper from the top of the key and calmly sank 2 free throws to extend that lead to 3, the final margin of the game.  He shot 14-15 from the line for the game and slammed the ball down in disgust after missing that one.

Even outside of his own play on the court, Durant has had an enormous impact.  Everyone on the team seems to know his role and they seem to thoroughly enjoy playing with each other.  He inspires awe in opposing fans rather than ire.  And, most shockingly, he has singlehandedly forged an uneasy alliance between Oklahomans and Texans.  There were a few OKC fans in the crowd last night (and we even spotted an OU hat) and a lot of Horns fans were there specifically (one would assume) to root on KD.  It was somewhat surreal, and, in my opinion, best not to think about, but it's amazing the effect that Durant had on Texas fans to the extent that we all turned out in New York City for the sole purpose of cheering him on, some of us going to great lengths to get tickets (thanks for the phenomenal seats Horndogger!).

Now, Durant is, of course, far from perfect.  He's always been a feast or famine defender (either gets a steal/block or gets beat off the dribble), and while he's getting better at moving his feet, he's not there yet.  He's been better at rebounding this year (7.5 per game, up from 4.4 as a rookie), but at his height and with the number of minutes he plays per game, he should probably grab 1-2 more each time out.  

But all this amounts to is nitpicking a man who has scored 25 points or more in TWENTY-EIGHT consecutive games through Sunday night (in which the Thunder have gone 20-8, including an ongoing nine game winning streak), which moves him ahead of Allen Iverson for the second longest streak in NBA history.  The longest streak ever?  Michael Jordan, who did it in 40 straight games in '86-'87.  Can Durant break the record?  Odds are that he won't, but what are the odds that Durant would be doing what he's doing as a 21 year-old third year pro without putting on ANY weight since his Texas playing days?  I wouldn't bet against a man who seemingly defies the physics of basketball.