LOS ANGELES -- Only a fool goes to a basketball game expecting to see a player score 60 points. Flames have to leak from his fingers. Buckets have to pour from the heavens. An entire defense has to lay down at center-court. Nobody predicted Kobe Bryant's 81, Michael Jordan's 63, Carmelo Anthony's 62. As prolific as those gunners were, and are, they required a force even greater than themselves. You can't handicap such heat. You can't anticipate the otherworldly. Their onslaughts are organic -- starting with a lay-up or an elbow jumper -- finishing with a flurry of unfathomable threes. History happens, it seems, when least expected.
The NBA's leading scorer came to Staples Center having put up 36 against the Blazers on Tuesday and 41 against the Knicks on Sunday. He posted 30 or more in 12 straight games in January. He hung 54 on Golden State, 48 on Utah and 48 on Minnesota. His opponent Thursday was the Los Angeles Lakers, who rank 29th in scoring defense, and were missing arguably their seven best players. The Lakers, bereft of young talent even when at full strength, fielded what amounted to a D-League lineup. They'd dropped 16 of the past 21 games and lost by 17 on Tuesday to a Utah squad that center Chris Kaman claimed "is trying to go for picks." The Lakers planned to cover Kevin Durant with Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly and Shawne Williams. They might as well have also thrown him a filet. "If he has a bad game it's because he played bad," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "It's not because anybody shut him down."
Superstars often pace themselves against inferior opponents, but Durant allows for no breathers at Staples, remembering too clearly when the Lakers were the envy of the league. He was fresh, after an off-day, and eager, with the All-Star break to follow. Since the game was nationally televised, he knew his peers were watching on big screens in New Orleans, enjoying what promised to be the first event of the weekend: a three-point shoot-out and dunk contest blended into one. The L.A. crowd came for Durant, but not just a glimpse of his long limbs. They came for carnage. This was like Clayton Kershaw pitching against the Astros at Chavez Ravine with the wind blowing in. There's no guarantee of a perfect game, but there's a chance.
I figured the only way Durant wouldn't score 60 points is if the Thunder had to pull him because they were up by 30. Turns out I was being conservative. A reporter asked D'Antoni before the game if Durant could match Bryant's 81. "He could, theoretically," D'Antoni said. It was uncertain whether they were talking about this very night.
Sometime after the All-Star break, Russell Westbrook will return from his third knee operation in the past 10 months, and the best team in the NBA will get better. The notion that Oklahoma City will somehow suffer with the addition of a premier point guard is fodder only for cable debate shows. But the Tour de Durant will likely come to an end, which is a shame, because it's defined the season. He is must-see in every city, as much an attraction as Kobe Bryant in the mid-2000s, with one crucial distinction: his team wins. No matter how Westbrook changes the dynamic, Durant remains a safe bet to lead the league in scoring and capture his first MVP award, but it's hard to reel off 50 points when a sidekick pitches in 25.
After a warm ovation, and a quick prayer, the Kevin Durant Experience commenced. He sliced inside Kaman for a lay-up. He sank one jumper on the right baseline and pulled up for another. He cherry-picked two dunks. He scored 10 points in the first quarter. Durant was active, but off-kilter, missing eight shots in the first half and all three of his three-pointers. He drew contact but couldn't get whistles. He blew lay-ups. He covered his face in frustration. Early in the third quarter, he was 5 for 15 and stuck on 12 points. He wasn't touching 60.
Then the steam started to rise. He sank a fade-away at the elbow, another at the top of the key, threw down a lob and converted a tough lay-up. He dished out three quick assists. He finally got a couple calls. But through three quarters, Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points and Durant was 9 for 22, 0 of 8 from three. It was surprising but not necessarily discouraging. Contenders drop games like this all the time. The Thunder had two charter flights waiting, one back to Oklahoma City and the other to New Orleans. They actually had more passengers bound for New Orleans.
Durant started the fourth quarter, unusual for him, and promptly hit a three. Even amid his worst outside shooting performance in nearly two months, he never let go of the trigger, firing as if he were in a zone. With 6:17 left, he made a swooping lay-up while flying by the right side of the backboard. The shot gave the Thunder their first lead of the game and put Durant over 30. Then he drained another three, a long two over Johnson, and one more three. It was the eighth time this season he's cracked 40. He needed 32 shots to do it, hardly efficient, but wildly entertaining. He really was channeling Bryant, circa '06, only with more passing and attention to the glass.
"I was terrible the whole game," Durant said afterward in the locker room, studying the box score. In his alternate universe, 43 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and a 107-103 win constitutes "terrible." By Durant standards, this was indeed a ragged outing. Yet it illustrated why, when he comes to town, the experience must not be missed. No, Durant didn't score 60. But he so easily could have. He so obviously will.
As with all supernatural phenomena, there's just no telling when.