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Kevin Durant is helping himself as he helps Oklahoma City Thunder

BEN BOLCH / ON THE NBA

NBA's leading scorer is getting teammates in the flow and thus creating better opportunities for himself, says team's GM. The Western Conference front-runners visit Lakers on Thursday.

February 12, 2014|By Ben Bolch
  • Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is fouled by Knicks guard Raymond Felton (2) as he drives between Felton and guard J.R. Smith in the fourth quarter of a game on Sunday in Oklahoma City.
Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is fouled by Knicks guard Raymond Felton… (Sue Ogrocki / Associated…)

James Harden is long gone, presumably never to return.

Russell Westbrook is probably coming back soon, though the right knee that has required three surgeries since April makes his long-term durability somewhat questionable.

That leaves Kevin Durant, which means everything is going to be OK(C) for the Thunder.

It almost seems as if the spindly forward is all Oklahoma City needs on many nights. Durant recently scored 30 or more points in 12 consecutive games, a streak that ended only after he sat out the entire fourth quarter of a blowout victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

Thunder Coach Scott Brooks may be the only person who can stop Durant now.

The NBA's leading scorer is averaging career highs in points (31.2), field-goal shooting (51.3%) and assists (5.5) for a team that holds the best record in the Western Conference heading into a game against the Lakers on Thursday night at Staples Center.

Since Westbrook reinjured his knee on Christmas, Durant's averages have somehow risen to 34.7 points, 53.4% shooting and 6.2 assists. It's the latter number that most impresses many around the Thunder who roll their eyes at the perception that Durant, a three-time scoring champ, is solely a prolific scorer.

"He's recognized that by getting other guys involved, it's creating much better opportunities for him," Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti said Wednesday by phone. "He's really gaining a sense of when to push and when to pull and a lot of his production is now being supported by efficiency and a lot of that is his willingness to help put the other guys that he shares the floor with in position to be successful and in turn it's creating easier opportunities for him."

Durant recently rolled up at least 25 points and four assists in 18 consecutive games, the league's longest streak in 40 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The primary beneficiaries were teammates Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson, who posted their highest scoring averages for any month of their careers in January.

Lamb also made a go-ahead three-pointer late in the fourth quarter of a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday and Jackson continues to emerge as a dynamic point guard who will bolster the Thunder's bench once Westbrook returns after the All-Star break.

Oklahoma City (42-12) hardly seems to miss Westbrook, as absurd as that notion might seem. The Thunder is 20-8 this season in games without its star point guard, including 19-7 since his latest setback, and actually has a better record than it did at this point two years ago when the team had both Westbrook and Harden alongside Durant.

Durant has not only scored in bunches — he averaged 38 points during his 12-game scoring binge — but played lockdown defense and fostered a team-oriented approach. After the recent triumph over the Nets, he called attention to the passing of Jackson, the screens set by Kendrick Perkins and the 12-for-12 shooting of Ibaka.

"Last year, I was thinking too much that I needed to make up for the loss of Russ when we all needed to just do it together," Durant recently told the Daily Oklahoman. "It was a great learning experience for all of us.

"I'm not looking to score a lot of points all the time. I'm just playing off how the game is going. My team may need me for a stretch, to try to score and be aggressive. But I'm all about winning the basketball game, however it comes."

Sometimes it's come by focusing on his defense. Durant held New York's Carmelo Anthony to a season-low 15 points on five-for-19 shooting Sunday during a victory over the Knicks.

His performance was emblematic of a team that is celebrated for scoring but also possesses one of the league's most underrated defenses, ranking sixth in efficiency. The Thunder held Houston to 19 points in a half and limited Portland to 37.6% shooting in their most recent meeting.

Still only 25, Durant continues to evolve as a player though an old-fashioned work ethic. It's hard to imagine what might be next for someone who has been the Western Conference player of the month in each of the last three months and is making a strong push for his first most-valuable-player award.

"His mentality is not quick-fix oriented, it's something that's incremental," Presti said. "But for a person that is still so young to embrace and understand the value of putting in that day-to-day work and letting the results take care of themselves, that's incredibly impressive and a huge differentiator for him among other successful people."

Durant and the Thunder continue to distance themselves from everyone else, one victory at a time.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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