Watch the NBA long enough and you become witness every so often to a changing of the guard from one basketball legend to the next rising star. The most recent hand-off between great scorers came when Michael Jordan succumbed to the defense of father time and gave way to his carbon copy, Kobe Bryant. Since then, the "Black Mamba", who has one of the more unfortunate self-proclaimed nicknames, has tortured defenses with an incredible array of offense and seamless pursuits to the basket. He is, without question, the greatest offensive player of the last decade. But his time has passed.
In this basketball game of thrones, it is now Kevin Durant's time to ascend to the throne and wear the crown as best scorer in the NBA.
Durant's skills are no secret by now. It's kind of hard to remain inconspicuous when you become the youngest player in NBA history to win three straight scoring titles. His silky game is incomparable in today's game, leaving hoop aficionados to gasp at how effortless he makes it look. He has owned defenses in the regular season and shut many of his critics up by stepping on the collective throat of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. With all that said, Durant's greatest challenge lies ahead.
With a 4-0 sweep of the Mavericks, Durant and the Thunder have had some time off. The most recent memory of Durant for fans has come from the countless number of Sprint commercials he's appeared in. ( Who could forget the quote "Doodle Jump? Man, that's messed up?") Endorsements are great but rings, or lack thereof, are what great players are measured by. To get to his first one, KD and the Oklahoma City Thunder will have to go through all-time great Kobe Bryant and the talented but often unmotivated Los Angeles Lakers. The task presents a chance at greatness on multiple levels for Durant. Beat the Lakers and he will pass Kobe in the hoop-iverse, at least as a scorer, as well as exorcising the demons OKC has had against L.A. in the Playoffs.
For most players in the NBA Playoffs, there is a rite of passage. You don't just show up and win a title, let alone multiple titles that the true greats have. Even Michael Jordan, who dropped 63 points in a loss (loss being the key word) against Boston the 1986 Playoffs had to change his game to better fit within the parameters of the Playoffs. Because if there is one truth about playoff basketball, it is this; great offense alone can not carry you to a championship. We're pretty certain Durant understands this and anyone who believes that he is one-dimensional simply fails to understand the complexity of his game.
The difference in Durant's game from last year's Playoffs to this one is subtle but it comes down to this; last year he was proving he belonged and this year he knows he does. When he takes a shot at the end of the game, as he did multiple times against Dallas all season, he has no doubt the shot is going in. His swagger and coolness at the end of the game is eerily similar to Bryant's demeanor, which was on full display last Saturday in Game Seven against the Denver Nuggets as he hit a three-pointer to plunge the dagger into the hopes of Ty Lawson and his mile high mates.
If you think Kobe is ready to give up the title of clutch shot king to Durant, you don't understand the ego of an athlete. To this day, Michael Jordan would likely feel he could beat Kobe in a shooting contest, and there is no doubt that most critics and Kobe himself believe that Bryant is still better than Durant. But Kevin Durant knows differently and the power of believing in one's self is an incredible thing. KD's confidence is at an all-time high and his inner resolve is indisputable. But that's not enough to be considered a legend. Ask LeBron James if you need proof. It's time for Kevin Durant to turn the rest of the world into believers. The first step is by making Kobe Bryant believe. Kevin, the court is yours.