In just three days, when Kevin Durant puts the finishing touches on his most sensational season and joins the exclusive fraternity that he's pursued the past four years, somewhere a legend will smile.
Larry Bird, from afar, has been watching Durant all along, admiring the Thunder forward for both his game and his growth.
But it wasn't until the two connected for the first time in an early-season chat that Durant learned Bird is as much of a fan of his as Durant is of the former Boston Celtics great. Mutual friends arranged a phone call between the two days after Durant last December revealed that Bird is the player after which he looked to model his game.
“I just talked to him one time,” Durant said. “But, you know, when you talk to somebody for that one time you can tell that you're kind of, like, connected because he's been watching. If I pick up the phone and call him it's like we've been talking every day.”
But in that one call, a conversation took place that would shape Durant's historic season.
Durant sits two games away from completing a near career-long chase for admission into what's referred to as the 50-40-90 club. Barring a breakdown of “Thunderstruck” proportions, Durant is set to become only the sixth player in NBA history to go an entire season shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line.
At just 24, Durant will join Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and, of course, his idol, Bird, as the only players to achieve the rare feat.
“If I'm able to join that club it'll be an honor,” Durant said. “It shows my progression as a player. It shows how far I've come as a player, from shooting 42 percent as a rookie to now shooting 50 almost for a whole season. That will be cool.”
With two games remaining, Durant is shooting 50.9 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from 3-point range and a league-leading 90.7 from the free throw line. The field goal and free throw percentages are both career bests for Durant. Meanwhile, he's averaging 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists while playing 38.5 minutes, the fourth most in the NBA.
Bird was unavailable for comment. But with Bird's counsel, Durant gained some perspective on exactly how he would approach this season.
Durant peppered Bird with questions, from everything about his Finals matchup with Magic Johnson to his thought process in practices.
“He's a guy that, of course, is a legend and I try to emulate,” Durant said. “Somebody that had that fire and that intensity when he played and when he coached and somebody I look up to.”
Durant's conversation with Bird is in part the basis of why Durant this season has sacrificed a fourth consecutive scoring title, an achievement that would have etched his name alongside Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to lead the league in scoring four straight seasons.
“He was one of the main guys that told me he just tried to make his teammates feel good, give them confidence every single day,” Durant said of Bird. “And I think that's what I'm doing. I think people don't really recognize that…And he's one of those guys that reassured me of that. Every day he was trying to get his teammates to be the best they could, and that's what I try to do.”
A disappointing Finals outcome — one in which Durant was largely fabulous — served as the first bit of proof to Durant that winning a title would take a team effort. And so while much of the basketball world spent this season imploring Durant to shoot more, the reigning three-time scoring champion stubbornly strove to become a better passer, to make his teammates better.
“He's won three scoring titles in a row and he seems to get better,” said Nowitzki. “His all-around game is getting better. I think he understands the game better. Now he passes it and doesn't force a lot of shots.”
Durant has averaged just 17.7 shots, his fewest since his rookie season. But, quietly, three of Durant's teammates — Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson — are averaging career-highs. Russell Westbrook still has a chance to be the fourth.
“His mental approach is outstanding,” Hall of Fame guard Chris Mullin, now an analyst for ESPN, said of Durant. “He could take more shots if he wanted to. The fact that he has set boundaries for himself, how he plays the game, it's impressive.”
Durant's average attempts, however, still rank third among 50-40-90 members. Bird, who achieved 50-40-90 status twice, tops the list with 20.2 and 22 attempts per game, respectively, in 1987 and 1988. Nowitzki, with 17.2 attempts per game, is the only other player in the club who has done it while attempting more than 13.5 shots.
“That's truly historic,” Nash said of Durant. “If you can do that with the amount of shots and responsibility that he has, it'll be a phenomenal accomplishment. I think Bird did it. That'd be the other guy who was a scorer like that and was able to do that. That's pretty damn good company, and I think he deserves that type of company.”
There's another factor that distinguishes Durant.
Durant will become the youngest player ever to join the club. Price was 25 when he did it. No other player did it before the age of 28.
“He's probably the best pure athlete and scorer out of all of us,” Miller said of Durant. “And he's just scratched the surface. Steve Nash has done it four times. (Durant) will probably be able to pass that because he's done this at such a young age.”
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
Current and former NBA players and coaches discuss Kevin Durant's growth and impending inclusion into the 50-40-90 Club.
* Hall of Fame guard Chris Mullin — “The way he's doing it is even more impressive because the way he scores is more incredible. The only other guy to score at such a high rate is Larry Bird… He's a throwback. He really is. It's just incredible.”
* Hall of Fame guard and 50-40-90 Club member Reggie Miller — “When you take the amount of shots that he's taken each and every night and still be able to do that with teams and players doubling and sometimes triple teaming you, that's what probably makes it the most impressive.”
* Dallas forward and 50-40-90 Club member Dirk Nowitzki — “To me, he's right up there obviously with LeBron and Kobe for best player in the league. He's long. He can rebound. There's really no faults in his game. So I'm a huge fan of his.”
* Golden State coach Mark Jackson — “To be his size, to be that athletic, to be able to shoot that well, the guy is off the charts. And he's efficient. I think those numbers speak volumes about how efficient he is as a basketball player. This game has not seen anybody like Kevin Durant in its history.”
* Los Angeles Lakers guard and 50-40-90 Club member Steve Nash — “That's truly historic. If you can do that with the amount of shots and responsibility that he has, it'll be a phenomenal accomplishment. I think Bird did it once. That'd be the other guy who was a scorer like that and was able to do that. That's pretty damn good company, and I think he deserves that type of company.”
* Thunder guard Kevin Martin — “He could easily score 35 to 37 a night on 40-40-90. But that's just not him. He's in it for the team and that's why he's such a special player.”'
* San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich — He's progressed very quickly as far as the mental side of the game”