Keeping track of Kevin Durant isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t what it used to be a season ago.
Last year, the Thunder forward was lighting up the league from every spot on the perimeter, draining long balls, pull-ups and swishing baskets off curls en route to an unforgettable season in which he became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history.
Durant became synonymous with scoring.
This year has been slightly different.
Durant has still lit up scoreboards with a league-leading 27.4 points per game. But the fourth-year forward, coming off a memorable summer, has done a much better job of stuffing the stat sheet altogether.
Now those big buckets have been accompanied on a regular basis with about a half dozen boards, a couple of dimes, at least a steal a game and several other plays that never make the box score. Through the first month of the 2010-11 regular season, KD has shown that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s learning how to impact the game in a myriad of ways.
Take the ThunderÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Nov. 29 win over the New Orleans Hornets, for example.
The game came down to the wire. Down by four points with a little over five minutes to go, the Thunder needed defensive stops. So head coach Scott Brooks put KD on the HornetsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ biggest inside threat in David West, a former All-Star who knows how to bulldoze his way into the paint for points.
All KD did was hold his own against West, using his length to challenge shots and his toughness to keep West from getting to the rim. Durant single-handedly made three straight defensive stops Ã¢â‚¬” he challenged a shot, blocked another and then rejected an Emeka Okafor shot Ã¢â‚¬” that sparked the Thunder to a 95-89 victory.
After the game, Brooks reiterated how all along he had confidence in Durant to make defensive plays down the stretch, and even reminded the local media how Durant had been the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best defender throughout the previous week.
Those defensive stops complimented DurantÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 26-point, 11-rebound effort.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was just trying to play my hardest and prevent him from getting easy scores,Ã¢â‚¬Â Durant said after the game. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think I did a decent job. My teammates helped me out a lot. I was just trying to play as hard as I can. My shot wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going so I decided to keep playing hard on both ends and see if I would start to come around.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just one example of how Durant has shown how he can affect a game outside of his natural scoring ability. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s part of the evolution of Durant, who himself would admit that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the furthest thing from a finished product.
The All-Star nod, the gold medal at the World Championship, the constant praise by the media for being the next big thing Ã¢â‚¬” Durant acknowledges it and continues to push forward with his development. You all know by now that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s never satisfied.
It hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been a completely smooth ride for Durant this season. Minor ankle and knee injuries have held him out of four games so far, but even when heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not in uniform heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still being the consummate teammate, applauding and dishing advice at any chance possible.
For the 18 games he has been healthy, Durant has continued to make his mark.
He appeared in his 250th career game earlier this season. By comparison, only two other active players (Shaq and LeBron) have scored more points through the first 250 career games than Durant (6,360 points at the time).
Durant has already led the Thunder in scoring in 14 games, has recorded three double-doubles and has scored more than 30 points in seven games.
One area heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s improved in has been at the foul line, where KD is shooting an NBA-best 92.3 percent from the charity stripe. Durant has been to the foul line more than 10 times in nine games, and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gone a perfect 16-for-16 from the line in two games.
All that goes to show is that even when KDÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s shot isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t falling, opponents still struggle to contain him.