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Stretching the Field: Durant bringing the boom for OKC

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Updated: 1/24 10:27 am

(SportsNetwork.com) - If you uttered the words "talk about stating the obvious" with the headline of this piece, then my job is done.

In a headline with more evidence than prosecutor Marcia Clark during the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, giving Kevin Durant his well-deserved recognition is nothing new in regards to spearheading the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Durant still dominated media outlets with sidekick Russell Westbrook spry and healthy, and now he's just toying with opponents on his own. But make no mistake, Durant isn't the one to gloat and puts his teammates first.

Wednesday night, he dropped 36 points on 12-of-22 field-goal shooting in a 111-105 victory over the Thunder's biggest hurdle in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs. Durant knocked down two big 3-pointers with less than two minutes to go and matched OKC's largest lead of the game at 108-98. The clutch shooting from the lanky star didn't faze Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"Kevin did his thing down the stretch, it was pretty remarkable," he said.

Durant, in his usual soft-spoken self, directed credit elsewhere.

"The bigs did a great job of setting screens and I felt coming off that screen I was wide open," Durant said of his 3-pointer with about a minute to go. "I just need a little bit of space to get that thing off."

Message to the rest of the NBA: Don't give Durant any space.

That's nearly impossible because it's an Oklahoma City axiom to get him the ball consistently. Durant, who drew some jealousy from Miami Heat star LeBron James for the amount of shots he takes (19.8 per game), said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is drawing up good Xs and Os and the players around him are creating for others as well as himself.

But to look at what Durant has done the past few weeks is impressive. In his last 11 contests, the NBA's leading scorer at a career-best 31 points per game, is posting an average of 38.1 ppg and shooting 52 percent from the field. He hasn't scored less than 20 points since Dec. 21 at San Antonio.

He has reached the 36-point mark five times during the past nine contests, scoring 30 or more points over that span (33.6 ppg), and has helped the Thunder to five straight wins against formidable foes from the West. The Thunder have disposed of Houston, Golden State, Sacramento, Portland and San Antonio on the win streak and are in the midst of playing six of seven games on the road.

Durant, who was criticized for not coming through in last season's playoff series loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, is a popular subject in MVP talks and has yet to earn the honor in his career. Perhaps he will covet the award during a playoff run this spring and trump two other high-profile candidates for the achievement, James and Indiana's Paul George.

James and George have a strong supporting cast around them; Durant wouldn't be getting by so easily without his. Muscle-bound power forward Serge Ibaka does the dirty work inside and new starting guard Reggie Jackson has filled in admirably off the bench as Westbrook recovers from another knee surgery. Jackson has posted an average of 15.4 points in his last 15 games -- all starts -- and has scored 10 or more points in each of his last six contests.

Jackson took what he could of Durant's spotlight against the Spurs with 27 points to go along with eight assists and two steals. Brooks has been impressed by Jackson taking advantage of extended playing time.

"We want him to play aggressive basketball on both ends of the floor," Brooks said of Jackson. "He did a good job of finding spots on the floor where he can finish around the rim and he also did a good job of finding guys who were open."

In relation to Jackson, Brooks continued about his superstar Durant.

"He scores because he's a smart player," Brooks said. "He scores because he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and score on different spots on the floor. He also scores because we have good players around him. If you double team, we have guys who can make you pay."

But all the scoring focus falls back on Durant, who recently led all Western Conference players with 1,396,294 votes for the NBA All-Star Game. It marks his fifth career selection and fourth as a starter. Durant led all scorers with 30 points on 13-of-24 shooting in last year's All-Star Game in Houston and is averaging 28.8 ppg in his four previous All-Star appearances.

Because of Durant, Oklahoma City is a half-game ahead of San Antonio for conference supremacy and leads the Northwest Division by a game in front of the Blazers. The Thunder still have to battle the likes of San Antonio, Portland, Houston, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers to grab the No. 1 seed in the conference and are tied with Indiana for the most wins with 33.

OKC defeated the Pacers back in early December and the two powers won't collide again until April 13 in Indy, and then possibly in the NBA Finals.

What the Thunder do have coming up is a showdown with James and the Heat on Jan. 29. Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta precede that anticipated matchup in Miami. The MVP award won't be handed out that night, but Durant will try to maintain his current 31-point clip to represent the highest scoring average in the NBA since Kobe Bryant averaged 31.6 ppg in 2006-07.

And that should easily put Durant ahead of James and George in MVP voting.

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