OKLAHOMA CITY -- In a hallway before his team's game against Cleveland last week, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked about the development of Kevin Durant this season. "Watch our second play tonight," Brooks said, "and you'll see."
Sure enough, on the Thunder's second possession Durant caught a pass at the top of the circle. He pivoted toward the rim, using his long, 6-foot-10 frame to peer over and around 6-6 Alonzo Gee. On his left Durant spotted Kyrie Irving hedging off of Russell Westbrook and toward him, waiting to provide help on a dribble-drive. Quickly, Durant skipped a pass to Westbrook, who knocked down an open three.
It's a simple play but not one Brooks went to often last season. Durant was more comfortable running around screens and the two-time scoring champion was able to do it effectively. Durant shot 46.2 percent from the field last year, the third straight season he has shot 46 percent or better. But Brooks and Thunder GM Sam Presti knew Durant was capable of more, which is why after last season's playoff run ended they pushed him to keep adding to his game.
"We saw big improvement in last year's playoffs but it still needed another jump," Brooks said. "We have to make sure that when we call a play for him, he can get it. We're not going to deviate out of our set. He has improved in that area. At the nail, at the mid-post, he can be really effective. When he is above that free-throw line it's tough to double."
What Brooks wants most is for Durant to adopt the skills of one of his rivals: Dirk Nowitzki. The Thunder see a lot of Nowitzki in Durant. Both are big for their position with virtually unlimited range and an impossible-to-block shot. In addition to working from similar spots on the floor, Durant has added a step-back jumper -- a staple in Nowtizki's arsenal -- to his repertoire.
"We played [Dallas] so much last year, I got to see how that shot would work for me," Durant said. "Me being 6-10, I'm not as strong as Dirk but I'm as long. It's a tough shot to perfect, but I'm trying."
To create more space, Durant has focused not only on getting stronger, but playing stronger.
"Sometimes last year I got a little nervous about playing too physically," Durant said. "I don't want to draw an offensive foul and get knocked out of the game. Now I'm noticing that it's OK to get physical and it's OK to push back."
The results of Durant's work are evident. He's once again among the league's top scorers (27.9 points per game, second to Kobe Bryant's 28.8) and collected his first career 50-point game last month. According to 82games.com, Durant is the most productive clutch scorer -- defined as the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, with the score within five points -- in the league, a full five points better than New York's Carmelo Anthony and 11 points better than last season. He is averaging a career-high 3.4 assists per game, handing out a season-high eight in last week's loss to Cleveland. More importantly, the 32-9 Thunder are leaders in the conference and among the favorites to win the NBA title.
"It hurt to lose last year, man," Durant said. "I told my team, 'I want to win more than anyone who ever played this game.' But we have grown as a group and I think we're going to continue to grow and get better as this season goes on. When the playoffs come, we'll be ready."