As time expired Thursday night and Kevin Durant held his fist skyward, it immediately became apparent that the 23-year-old is no longer a commodity or a sideshow in the National Basketball Association. He’s the main attraction.
But following a pair of botched free throws by OKC forward Serge Ibaka, the momentum seemed to swing in favor of the Mavs. The defending champs were getting the ball back, down just two points and NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki was straight money from just about anywhere on the floor. It seemed like a done deal.
While all the attention was focused on Dirk's every move, it was the unexpected insertion of Vince Carter into the lineup that nearly stole the show.
During the timeout, the rapidly aging yet seemingly ageless Carter entered the game, swooping in off the bench, almost undetected by Thunder players and likely most fans at home. But what was there to take notice of really?
Carter's presence on the night to that point was pretty forgettable as it were. The 8-time All-Star has shot just 2-of-7 from the field with 5 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes -- hardly a memorable VC performance. Not to mention, I sat chatting with my buddy "it's not like he's getting the ball in crunch time anyhow," I joked.
Man, did I feel like a fool?
When Carter actually rose up from the top of the arc, nailing the three-pointer with about 1.4 left on the clock to put Dallas up 102-101, my jaw nearly dropped. I immediately paused my Netflix (classic multi-tasking), interrupting the middle of an episode of Break Bad, just to stare in awe at the absolutely befuddling scene.
As I sat up, my mind didn't even register that arguably the NBA's best player, Kevin Durant, stood in the other team's huddle methodically plotting his kill shot - the 27 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists just not enough to satisfy the kid.
Out of the timeout, it was No. 35's time to shine. Durant walked to his place off the corner of the arc, eyes focused, mouth closed, nostrils' flared -- it was almost as if Carter's bucket had awoken the beast within.
Thabo Sefolosha looking low as the play develops and an almost enraged KD whips around the screen at the right of the arc, spinning off a defender for the quick catch and shoot from almost 27-feet. The shot seemed reminiscent of plays in Durant's past, where the talented youngster would pull up from nearly anywhere on the court and launch an ill advised shot in a desperate attempt for a win.
On this night, it was different though. As Durant's sneakers sprung from the hardwood, leaping high above three Mavs defenders left standing in front, the 23-year-old no longer had the look of a careless kid heaving a hopeless brick. He was now a crafty veteran with a nose for the net and a killer instinct spawning inside.
From the moment it left his hand, it seemed almost inevitable. The sweet sailing ball glided through the air with no sense of urgency, quietly floating to the basket as if it were anyone of Durant's other 15 shots on the night.
Yet, as time expired and Durant held his fist skyward, his Thunder teammates flocking like animals to Noah's Ark, it immediately became apparent that the 23-year-old is no longer a commodity or a sideshow. He's the main attraction.
In his first three seasons, Durant was widely viewed as just a fascinating lure to NBA fans. He was young, athletic and entertaining. He could score 50 on any given night, flash an amazing dunk for the highlight reel and during his days off, when not locked in the gym, he'd be playing Xbox or filling in on a local flag football team. Basically, Kevin Durant was just an ordinary kid with an extraordinary ability to shoot hoops.
It wasn't until last season's playoff run that Durant's fire and will really started to shine through and the man inside began to separate himself from the fun loving kid seen on the television.
Dominating the Denver series with close to 33 points and 6 rebounds a game was a nice teaser but his real coming out party had to be in the Game 7 blowout of the Memphis Grizzlies. Durant scored 39 points to go along with 9 boards and 3 blocks, propelling the Thunder on to the Western Finals - valiant effort and all, we all know how that ended.
Durant's late game heroics on Thursday were surely just a glimpse of his overwhelming presence not just during the first 3 quarters of games -- as most had become accustomed -- but now also in the clutch.
In a postgame interview, Durant even sounded like a winner, like a guy that definitively wanted to be the one deciding the outcome.
"I told Thabo in the huddle to give me the ball," Durant said with a giddy smile on his face. "I'm an emotional player and I wanted to get the win for us."
Now, that's the sign of a true leader. That example of maturity is the very trait that separates greatness and championships. It's that very killer instinct that Durant flaunted before the eyes of millions on Thursday, the I want the responsibility good or bad attitude, that sets him apart. That type of behavior is exactly why this league will soon be Kevin Durant's NBA.
Lebron James and Dwyane Wade had their opportunities in the limelight, instead choosing the safer -- and by most accounts wiser -- route of combining forces to increase their chances of raising banners in Miami. Kobe Bryant spent his time under the microscope, scoring in bunches and getting his rings fitted. But while the Heatles spread their high flying acrobatic act in Miami and the Lakers suffer with an aging core, Durant will continue to go about his business in OKC just biding his time to strike.
Simply put, this is KD's NBA now. Thursday was just a glimpse of what Durant has in store for the league this season -- and if it is any indication of what the rest of this strike-shortened season could hold, then I am happy basketball is back -- and with plenty more on the horizon, we could be staring down the new aged Jordan.
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