Without Harden, Oklahoma City needed a new playmaker, and Durant had spent more than a year preparing for the role. He just didn't realize it at the time. "They were looking for somebody else to move the defense and handle the ball in pick-and-roll," says a scout. "It turned out to be him." When Durant was 20, the Thunder asked him to act 25, and now that he is nearly 25, the plan for his prime has come to fruition. He is the NBA's best and perhaps only answer for James. "I've given up trying to figure out how to stop him," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "And I'm not kidding."
On Nov. 24, four weeks after Harden left, the Thunder were a respectable but unremarkable 9--4 and nursing a five-point lead with one minute left in overtime at Philadelphia. Durant posted up on the right wing, bent at the waist, a step inside the perimeter. Dorell Wright, the unfortunate 76er assigned to him, planted one hand on Durant's rib cage and another on his back. "What do I tell a guy in that position?" asks an NBA assistant coach. "I shake his hand and say, 'Good luck.' "
Durant faced up against Wright, tucked the ball by his left hip and swung his right foot behind the arc, toe-tapping the floor like a sprinter searching for the starting block. Durant had scored 35 points, but on the previous possession he fed Westbrook for a three, and on the possession before that he set up a three by Kevin Martin, who had arrived from Houston in the Harden trade. It was time for the Durant dagger, but before he shimmied his shoulders and unfurled his arms he spotted guard Thabo Sefolosha, ignored in the left corner. Sefolosha was 1 for 6, and in the previous timeout Durant had told him, "You're going to make the next shot." Durant could have easily fired over Wright and finished the Sixers, but he let his mind wander to the ultimate destination, seven months away. I'm going to need all these guys to get to the Finals, he thought.
Durant took one dribble to his left, and center Lavoy Allen rushed up to double him at the free throw line. He dribbled twice more, to the left edge of the key, and two other Sixers slid over. Surrounded by four defenders, Durant finally shoveled to Sefolosha, so open that he feared he might hesitate. He didn't. Durant jabbed him in the chest as the ball slipped through the net.
How about them apples?