In the summer of 2010, Scott Brooks issued Kevin Durant a challenge: Defend. You're a great scorer, Brooks told Durant, but to be a great player you have to play both ways. Like Michael. Like LeBron. Like Kobe. "I said Kevin, if you want to be an elite player in this league, you can't do it on one end," Brooks told SI.com. "You are going to be known as one of the best scorers in the game. If you want to be known as something more than that, you have to play both ends."
Two years have passed. The talk stuck, and it is one Brooks remembered in the calm of a quiet hallway after the Thunder's dramatic, 77-75 win, a plea from coach to player that has charted a championship course for the franchise. Make no mistake, it wasn't Durant's seven-foot fourth quarter floater that will serve as the defining moment of this game, this series. It was the steal and subsequent dunk of a Kobe Bryant --yes, Kobe -- pass that sparked a furious comeback in the final two minutes and gave Oklahoma City a daunting 2-0 series lead.
Yes, it is the determination of Durant to become a two-way player that could be key to this young Thunder team's rise. With just over four minutes to play in a close game Brooks switched Durant onto Kobe, a decision made without much concern, or doubt. "It was just time," Durant said. Two years ago Durant wasn't equipped to handle Kobe. He was all arms and legs then, a 6-foot-9 string bean with a knack for scoring and flaws everywhere else. He vowed to change his game after that first-round series loss to the Lakers and in a short time, he has.
"He listens," Brooks said. "He badly wants to be a great player."
Be great, like Kobe. There is the bar, meet it.
No one understands the evolution of Bryant better than Derek Fisher, who came into the league with Bryant in 1996 and has had a front-row seat to his development ever since. No one today can match Bryant's intensity, his singular focus. That will to be great though, that's something that oozes from Durant's pores.
"I watched Kobe for years work to become one of the greatest of all-time," Fisher said. "I think Kevin has the same love and passion for playing basketball. The process is happening, for sure. You can see he is understanding more of what it takes to be the leader of the team. Not just statistically; but the little things, the defense, the rebounding, being in the right position. Knowing when to control the game, when to get his teammates involved. But I think he is making a commitment on the defensive end. He wants to get better. He wants to improve. He is on his way."
The Thunder have the Lakers on the ropes now, and the killer growing in Durant is ready to finish them off. They won their way in Game 1, sprinting out in transition, shredding the Lakers in the pick-and-roll. They played L.A.'s game in Game 2, slow, methodical, every possession a street fight. They got beat up in the paint (46-34) and on the glass (41-36) and shot the ball in the second half like the rim were the size of a thimble. Down seven, two minutes to go, they were finished. Then Kobe malfunctioned and Durant sprung to life, willing -- there is that word again -- his team to a win.
"That's what great players are supposed to do, to take on that challenge at the end of the game," said Lakers coach Mike Brown. "He did. He won the game for them, basically."
The confidence inside Durant, in this Thunder team grows by the day and everyone is on the same page. Talk of a rift between Durant and Russell Westbrook is old news, and the whispers that maybe, just maybe these two alpha males can't play together get quieter by the day. Westbrook is a critical cog but this is Durant's team. Soon, it could be his league, too. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ceded the throne to Michael Jordan, Jordan to Kobe. It's assumed that, eventually, Kobe will step aside for LeBron. Durant may have a say in that. As the injury to Chris Bosh puts the title hopes of the Super Friends in Miami in doubt, the door is open for someone else to seize Kobe's throne. Someone, perhaps, more like him.
"There are similarities in terms of that internal fire," Fisher said. "Kevin is not as demonstrative [as Kobe] in terms of his actions, but on the inside, he wants to be one of the greats."