In the summer of 2011, as the NBA and its union were trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, Durant created an endless loop of YouTube videos with his preposterous scoring binges at East Coast pickup games. What the cameras didn't show were the drills he did during daily 6 a.m. workouts at Bryant Alternative High School in Alexandria, Va., with Zormelo pushing down on his shoulders to lower his dribble. Durant even tried to rebuild his crossover, but when the ball kicked off his high tops, he hurled it away in frustration. "I'm never really going to use this!" he hollered.
But at all those pickup games, he asked to play point guard, and in downtime he watched tapes of oversized creators like Bird and Magic Johnson. "Opponents are going to do anything to get the ball out of your hands," Zormelo told him. "They're going to make you drive and pass." Durant could typically beat double teams simply by raising his arms. Even though he is listed at 6'9", he is more like 6'11", with a 7'5" wingspan and a release point over his head. The only defenders long enough to challenge his jumper aren't normally allowed outside the paint. "Most guys can't shoot over the contested hand," says Brooks. "Not only can Kevin shoot over it, he uses it as a target. If anything, it lines him up." Durant didn't distinguish between good and bad shots, because through his eyes there was no such thing as a bad one. Every look was clean. "I had to tell him, 'If you have a good shot and I have a good shot, I want you to take it,' " Brooks says. " 'But if you have a good shot and I have a great shot, you have to give it to me.' "
Ballhandling drills begat passing drills. Durant saw what the Thunder could accomplish if he took two hard dribbles and found an abandoned man in the corner. With Zormelo's research as a guide, Durant identified his sweetest spots at both elbows, both corners and the top of the key. From those happy places, he is doing the Thunder a disservice if he doesn't let fly, but outside of them he prefers to probe. He moves a half step slower so he can better see the floor.
This season Durant is averaging two fewer field goals and nearly two more assists than he did in 2011, and he has practically discarded two-point shots outside 17 feet. Brooks tells him on a near nightly basis, "KD, it's time. I need you to shoot now." Says Brooks, "To extend the apple metaphor, I'm now able to put him all over and get fruit." He isolates Durant at the three-point line, posts him up and uses him as the trigger man in the pick-and-roll. When defenders creep too close, Durant freezes them with a crossover at his ankles or deploys a rip move that former Thunder forward Desmond Mason taught him four years ago to pick up fouls.
"Remember when tall guys would come into the league and people would say, 'They handle like a guard!' but they never actually did handle like a guard?" says Thunder forward Nick Collison. "Kevin really does handle like a guard." Durant has become both facilitator and finisher, shuttling between the perimeter and the paint, stretching the limits of what we believe a human being with his build can do. If his progression reminds you of someone else's, well, that's probably not an accident.
Durant was 17 when LeBron James invited him into the Cavaliers' locker room at Washington's Verizon Center after a playoff game against the Wizards. "That's my guy," Durant says. "I looked up to him, and now I battle him." In a sense, the 2011 lockout was a boon for the NBA because it allowed the premier performers to explore new boundaries. James fortified his dribble, and so did Durant. James developed his post skills, and so did Durant. James studied his shot charts, vowing to eliminate inefficiencies, and so did Durant. James already passed like Magic, but Durant started to pass like Bird. They hopped on parallel evolutionary tracks, advancing in the same manner at the same time. When a quote from James is relayed—"He's my inspiration. We're driving one another"—Durant nods in approval. It's as if the finest poets in the world are also each other's muses.
"I don't watch a lot of other basketball away from the gym," Durant says. "But I do look at LeBron's box score. I want to see how many points, rebounds and assists he had, and how he shot from the field. If he had 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, I can tell you exactly how he did it, what type of shots he made and who he passed to." Durant and James take flak for their friendship, but it is based on a mutual appreciation of the craft. They aren't hanging out at the club. They are feverishly one-upping each other from afar. "People see two young black basketball players at the top of their game and think we should clash," Durant says. "They want the conflict. They want the hate. They forget Bird cried for Magic. A friend was getting on me about this recently, and I said, 'Calm down. I'm not taking it easy on him. Don't you know I'm trying to destroy the guy every time I go on the court?' "
Oklahoma City beat Miami in Game 1 of last year's Finals and trailed by only two points with 10 seconds left in Game 2. Durant spun to the baseline and James appeared to hook his right arm, but no foul was called and Durant's shot bounced out. The Thunder did not win again, but Durant stood arm-in-arm with Westbrook and Harden at the end of the series, a tableau of defeat but also of a boundless future. Not one was over 23. Durant and Westbrook had already signed long-term contract extensions, and Harden was still a year from restricted free agency. But on Oct. 27, Oklahoma City had not agreed to an extension with Harden and sent him to Houston in a trade that threatened the very culture Durant built. For a player who attended four high schools, spent one year at Texas and one in Seattle, the Thunder signified the stability he lacked. "People tell you it's a business, but it's a brotherhood here," Durant says. "We draft guys and we grow together. We build a bond. When James left, we had to turn the family switch off."
In the first meeting after the deal, Brooks told his players, "We're not taking a step back." But everywhere else they heard otherwise. "My cousin texted me, 'I'm a Heat fan now, but I still hope you make it to the Finals,' " Durant recalls. "That's my family! That's my cousin!" He shakes his head at a small but lingering act of betrayal. "A lot of friends from home were talking about other teams, and I thought they were on our side. I don't want to be angry or bitter, but it started to build up, and I took it out on my teammates." Previously, if power forward Serge Ibaka blew a box-out, Durant would tell him, "It's O.K. You're going to get it next time." But the stakes had risen. "You want to get to the Finals again, and you think everything should be perfect, and it's not," Durant says. "So I'd scream at him and pump my fist."
Durant has picked up 12 technical fouls this season, more than twice as many as his previous career high, and he was ejected for the first time, in January, after arguing with referee Danny Crawford. "I'm rubbing off on him," says Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who keeps a standing 2 a.m. phone call with Durant every night to discuss the state of the team. "He's getting a little edge on." The techs dovetailed neatly with Nike's "KD is Not Nice" marketing campaign, but they still don't fit the recipient. Even after the ejection, Durant stopped to high-five kids sitting over the tunnel. "People get it confused and think you have to be a jerk to win," he says. "But we all feed off positive energy. I'm a nice guy. I enjoy making people happy and brightening their day. If someone asks me for an autograph on the street, I don't want to wave him off and tell him, 'Hell, no.' That's not me. The last few months I've calmed down and had more fun. We can still get on each other, but there's another way."