Game 5 of the Western conference semi-finals against the mighty Lakers. He nails a three. The lead balloons beyond the reach of the Lakers, beyond the reach of Kobe Bryant. The most beautifully innocent smile (in the NBA at least) breaks across his face. Kevin Durant, on his way to taking the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the NBA finals.
The NBA has always been a superstar-centric league, starting way back from the days of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Jerry West and (slightly later) Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird reinvigorated the league before a certain Michael Jordan stole the show. Look around the league, and you will see stars everywhere - Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan, etc etc etc. Yet none of them, are anything like Kevin Durant.
Karan Madhok (@Hoopistani on twitter) wrote this piece on how Durant is the last universally loved player in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki for example, though an extremely like-able character, has always elicited doubt in the minds of certain groups of fans, who called him "soft" and so on. Till date, I am yet to hear of someone having a bad word to say about KD.
But no, that is not what I wanted to write about. Kevin Durant is a unique personality. Sure. But his game is something extraordinarily unique. Yes, being a 6'11'' tall Small Forward in itself is unique. Yes for such a tall player, to have such a good handle on the dribble is impressive. But that isn't what I'm trying to get to either. Kevin Durant, makes basketball look easy.
Over the years, I've watch so many different stars grace the game. Whether it was Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Wade or even Rose, they all have one thing in common, the ability to make your jaw drop. Quite frequently, Derrick Rose will drive through the lane, contort his body, get off a layup and make you wonder "How? How did he pull that off". Kobe goes through these phases where it doesn't matter if 3 people have their hands in his face, he still makes the bucket. LeBron transforms occasionally into an unstoppable beast. Wade slashes and drives like his life depends on it.
Watching Kevin Durant in action, in contrast, is like watching a ballerina in a break dancing group. Amidst the chaos and the physicality of an NBA game, the man stands out for his grace and agility. That's not to say he isn't a physical player. You can't play basketball without being physical. But Durant makes everything look graceful. Whether it be a nonchalant 3 point dagger at the death of a game, or a ferocious dunk on the break, Durant makes it all look beautiful. Makes it look easy.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James huffed and puffed his way to 30 points, using his strength to get to the rim. Wade struggled. Bosh struggled. At the other end, in the second half, Durant was unstoppable, only it didn't appear so. When Battier, LeBron and even Haslem blocked his path to the basket, he'd nail the jumper. When they tried chasing him off the three point line, he'd put the ball on the floor and glide to the basket. When both paths were unavailable, he'd pick out an accurate, perfectly thought out pass, to the right man, at the right time and create a basket. Little wonder that OKC (incredibly) converted on 22 off their last 29 possessions. But Durant didn't go about it like LeBron James would. He wasn't defying the laws of physics. He wasn't making incredible shots. Heck, if you didn't glance at the box score you wouldn't know he'd scored more than 30 points. Why?
The NBA has trained us to look for the incredible. We are fed with dunks, buzzer beaters, powerful blocks, behind-the-back passes and so on. Eventually it turns out that it's the players who make these highlight reels the most are the biggest stars in the game. The league thrives on players who make things look incredibly hard and pull them off. Then there is Kevin Durant. A man who sometimes convinces you that you could play like him. A man who's almost nonchalant with his play. A man who thrives on simplicity, effectiveness and a knack for incredible efficiency. Sure, he has a few highlights to his name, who doesn't? But, rarely does he seem to be defying any fundamental laws. Rarely does he seem to pull off the incredible. He is like a graceful dancer, trapped in the 6'11'' frame of a basketball superstar. That, to me, is why he is the NBA's unique and graceful superstar