CHICAGO — By the time he buttoned up his black bubble vest, long after saving the day yet again with that silky-smooth shooting touch, the only question worth asking Kevin Durant before he sauntered out of the United Center following his latest heroic act was what in the world took so long?
How, when it became clear that his team had stumbled into a slugfest against a Chicago squad playing without its star, could the best ballplayer in the building stay so reserved and seem so reluctant to do that which he was born to do — be a cold-blooded scoring assassin?
The final minute, when Durant scored six of the Thunder's final eight points to seal a 97-91 win, showed he clearly had been holding back, much like he's done in each of his team's first five games. But on Thursday night, Durant took it to the extreme, giving the impression that his newfound patience to start this season is beginning to border on passivity.
Through three quarters, Durant had taken six fewer shots than point guard Russell Westbrook. His 13 attempts were tied with Serge Ibaka. Worse, Durant hadn't taken a single foul shot. Even more worrisome was Durant lingered in cruise control despite Westbrook struggling through an off-shooting night, having started 2-for-10 before carrying a dismal 5-for-19 shooting display into the final frame.
“I'm just playing within the flow,” Durant insisted, after somehow managing to score a team-high 24 points on 11-for-19 shooting despite his slow start.
Maybe this is the new Kevin Durant: half scoring assassin, half sleepwalker, er, setup man until crunch time.
Four of Durant's six fourth-quarter shots came in the final 31/2 minutes. The first, a jumper off a curl, broke an 85-all tie with 3:17 remaining. He later missed a 3, but then he drove past Bulls forward Luol Deng for a 17-foot pullup that pushed the Thunder's lead to 91-87. After Taj Gibson hit a jumper, Durant all but iced the game with his ever-improving one-legged fadeaway over Deng from just above the foul line.
“It was his time,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that's his time. And he took his time and got the shots he needed.”
What's becoming clearer by the game is Durant doesn't mind deferring through three quarters. He has returned content with making plays for others as much as he puts the ball in the basket. He struggled in that department Thursday, dishing just one assist against six turnovers. It's the first game this year that he's had more giveaways than helpers. That, coupled with the rough shooting night by Westbrook, illustrated more than ever how Durant's desire to create sometimes should take a backseat to what he does best.
It's a balance the three-time scoring champ still is deciphering as he strives to develop his all-around game.
“I think Kevin's just playing his game,” Westbrook said. “He lets the game come to him. Everybody's got different personalities. Kevin's the laid-back type. Everybody knows me as the crazy type. So my job is to do that and his job is to be relaxed.” Thunder coach Scott Brooks sounds fine with the new Durant.
“I like Kevin to be a playmaker,” Brooks said. “That's what separates great players from good players. He can play-make and find shots himself and also find easy shots for his team. He's done that all season. I thought tonight he was more aggressive as the game went on, and some nights it's going to be like that. But 19 shots, I like him to be up there but also continue to pass.”
While Durant let the game come to him Thursday, it was Ibaka of all players who carried the scoring load, dumping in 11 first-quarter points to keep the Thunder hanging around with a still stingy Bulls defense playing without the injured Derrick Rose. Durant took just five shots, three of them coming in the final two minutes of that opening quarter. Yet Durant swears it's a strategy that is paying off.
“We're running a lot of pick-and-rolls,” Durant said. “You see it's getting Serge wide open shots. And when my number is called I've just got to be aggressive. I'm just going out there and doing whatever I can for the team. Coach called my number in the fourth quarter and I just had to come through for us.
“I tried my hardest to make good shots and come off of screens hard. Everybody set me up pretty nicely in that fourth. If he calls on me in the first quarter to go out there and try to score as much as I can, that's what I'm going to do. But for now I'm just going to play within the flow of the offense.”
How this new style works going forward will come to light soon enough.
For now, consider it a blessing that the Thunder has a baller capable of cruising for 45 minutes before taking over in the final three.
“That's what stars can do,” Brooks said. “They can have an average game, and then in the last four or five minutes they can win the game. And I thought that's what he did tonight. That's what makes him a special player.”