BOSTON â€” The last time Kevin Durant was in Boston, the ring of the final buzzer had barely faded before someone indignantly tried to discredit how the Oklahoma City Thunder's star forward had just led his team to what, at the time, had marked his first signature victory.
That someone was Kevin Garnett, whose heat-of-the-moment reaction following the Thunder's 109-104 stunner over the Celtics on March 31 infamously lives on through half-minute Internet video clips.
â€œI thought we were playing Michael (expletive) Jordan tonight the way he was getting the whistle,â€ Garnett said as he stared down at a stat sheet while propping up his head against a clinched fist. â€œDurant damn near shot more free throws than our whole team. That's the game.â€
That night, Durant scored a game-high 37 points to go with eight rebounds, two assists and a perfect 15-for-15 streak at the foul line. The Celtics shot just 17 free throws.
â€œI was kind of shocked he said it in a press conference,â€ Durant admitted recently. â€œBut he thought that way about me. I was just happy to get that win in Boston that night. A lot of people said they gave me fouls, and that started the whole thing with Phil Jackson (questioning Durant's foul calls). But it was pretty cool to go through that.â€
What Durant experienced immediately after Garnett's brief blowup was a sudden spotlight that shined squarely on him. Prior to that point, Durant still was flying under the NBA radar. Even as he punched his first ticket to the All-Star game a month earlier, he traveled to Dallas playing second fiddle to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.
But Durant's play quickly became a national topic after the Celtics game, garnering airtime on all the major television sports talk shows. It forced followers of the game to ask themselves just how good Durant has quietly become.
The verdict: Garnett got exposed as the grumpy old man, while Durant got showered as the new kid on the block.
â€œKG's a top 50 greatest (player) to ever play the game,â€ Durant said. â€œFor him to say that about me is kind of flattering. I guess that's when people started to recognize a little bit. But I couldn't let that affect how I play or our team.â€
Durant leads his Thunder back into Boston tonight still shooting free throws in bunches and still working toward moving closer to Michael (expletive) Jordan.
For every stride Durant has taken in his fourth season, though, he has had a stumble. So far, his season averages of 28 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists are all lower than his production from a year ago. His 3.8 turnovers, meanwhile, are a career-high, while his 42.6 percent shooting is currently a career-low.
But Durant insists the added attention, and the external expectations, haven't affected him.
â€œI think I'm doing pretty well, to be honest,â€ Durant said. â€œI don't know what people what me to do or how good they want me to be. But I can't worry about that. I just have to worry about how I'm playing. I could play a little better.â€
While it's still early, all-around consistency and clutch play has eluded Durant. Only once this season has Durant assembled a dominant fourth quarter â€” a rather alarming fact considering five of the Thunder's wins have come by seven points or less. That one shining moment came against Portland in Oklahoma City, when Durant scored 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. In the other nine games that Durant has played in the fourth quarter or overtime, he's averaging just 5.3 points on 31.1 percent shooting.
â€œI don't worry about his shooting percentage,â€ said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. â€œThat's all going to work itself out in the shots that he gets and the minutes that he will get. He just has to continue to work on the little things that will continue to make him a special player for a lot of years. That's a consistent defensive mentality. That's rebounding and helping your teammates and blocking shots. That's an important part of who he is. He wants to be a two-way player.â€
Brooks said any pressure Durant feels comes from within.
â€œI don't see the outside expectations getting to him,â€ Brooks said. â€œThat's just part of it. We all have to deal with it. But you should always have expectations on yourself, how you play and how you perform every night. And Kevin is hard on himself.â€
In addition to navigating his way toward becoming a better set-up man, Durant said he is still learning how to be effective despite the entire defense focusing so much on him that he compared it to playing â€˜five on one.â€ Playing hard on both ends for an entire game, Durant said, also has been an adjustment, but one he knows every great player must eventually grasp.
â€œIt's very important to me,â€ Durant said of his desire to evolve into one of the league's best and most complete players. â€œI work so hard and that's the kind of player I want to be. I want to be one of the bestâ€¦I got a lot of work to do. But hopefully I can get there. I just got to continue to keep pushing.â€