Jan 19, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) walks on the court against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

How Kevin Durant is elevating his game to an MVP award without Russell Westbrook

If the MVP voting was today, there should be no disputing Kevin Durant winning the award. That’s right, in the same season that LeBron James is averaging 26.2 points, 6.5 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game while shooting 58.0 percent from the field, Durant is currently the clear-cut favorite.

Last night, Durant put on another stellar performance, dropping 46 (17-of-25 shooting and 6-of-7 shooting from three) on the Portland Trail Blazers as the Thunder came back for a 105-97 victory. It was Durant’s fourth 40-point game of the season and the eighth straight game in which he scored 30 or more points.

Games like last night don’t really come as a surprise. They’re just awesome when they happen. We all know that Durant is one of the most talented and skilled players in the NBA, and really ever. We also know that he breathes basketball, works on his game basically 24/7 and has an enormous hunger to win and improve. The sum of all of that is what we’re seeing now: Durant is playing the best basketball of his career.

The biggest reason Durant is having the opportunity to put up these kinds of numbers is the absence of Russell Westbrook. Certainly, no one can any longer make the case that Russell Westbrook hurts the Thunder. OKC was 22-4 with him this season and have struggled to be above .500 without him.

Without Westbrook, Durant knows he has to score more often and be a playmaker more often. He has the ball in his hands more than ever. The amazing thing is that he has been increasing his efficiency while being asked to do more.

I don’t think this is because Westbrook holds Durant back. I think the Durant with Westbrook beside him is a better player than the Durant without Russ. I think Durant is just rising to the occasion because he knows the team needs him to. Also, Durant is just getting into a better rhythm at this point in the season. I think we’d see the increase in shooting percentages from Durant if Westbrook was still in the lineup.

But still, players aren’t supposed to have a true shooting percentage of 65.7 and average 36.5 points per game while having a 35.3 usage percentage. This is uncharted territory that Durant is venturing in.

It’s not just the scoring and shooting that has improved for Durant without Westbrook either. I mentioned he needed to be a better playmaker with Westbrook out and he has done just that. His assist percentage has increased from 22.9 to 29.8 while his turnover ratio has dropped from 10.6 to 7.9.

Durant is getting to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to. The scary thing is how much he is capable of. He can get his shot off from anywhere over anyone. He’s developed his game off the bounce so much in the past few years that he no longer gets into trouble when trying to dribble through traffic. His handle is possibly the most underrated in the league and he’s just absolutely abusing defenses in the pick-and-roll. He’s become better at reading when to attack the rim, when to pull up and when to kick it out.

If you’re defending Durant, where do you send him? There’s nowhere on the court where he isn’t good. He’s become the best at getting to the free throw line when he drives and he can shoot it going to his left or right. It’s really actually amazing that teams aren’t doubling to take it out of his hands more often, but give credit to Reggie Jackson (the offense was run through him some in the final minutes last night) and Serge Ibaka.

I have felt like during last season and with Westbrook in the lineup this season that Durant has tried to focus a bit too much on becoming a playmaker. Whenever he was passing, it was usually a predetermined thing (like he knew a defender was going to hedge on a pick-and-roll so he had already decided he was going with the pocket pass to a popping Ibaka). This has never been a bad thing, I just don’t think it was the best thing either. Durant didn’t seem to be reading and reacting to what the defense was doing as much as purposely trying to do more distributing.

His mentality has been forced to change with Westbrook out. He’s just playing now with no agenda except to win. He’s not trying to be a distributor as much as he seems to be just making the best basketball play in front of him. That means shooting more. Durant took 18.3 field goals and 9.0 free throws per game with Westbrook in the lineup. That’s up to 22.6 field goals and 11.8 free throws over the last 14 games without Russ.

This recent play has been a very special thing from Durant. He has taken his game to a level no one was really sure was going to happen. It’s been impressive and fascinating to watch. But I don’t think he can keep it up forever and I think Durant knows he really can’t either.

We saw how Durant could end up struggling without Westbrook in the lineup during the playoffs last season. And it should be noted that there is an enormous difference between the defenses Durant sees from night to night now compared to what it’s like in the playoffs. If the Thunder are without Westbrook during the playoffs again, I think we’d see a similar struggle for OKC and Durant.

For now, we all just need to continue to enjoy what Durant is doing. He’s locked in like never before. He’s playing the best all-around basketball of his career. And it looks like no team is ever prepared to handle what he is going to bring to the floor.

Tags: Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder

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