Legacies are made in the NBA Playoffs. This year, a fresh face may begin the journey toward all-time greatness.
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Five of the stat lines above were the harbingers of history. The names and faces behind them, in defining stretches of games, began legacies that would forever be cemented in the history of the NBA. You’ll find their names on any short list of the best players of all time. You’ll find their names on any list of NBA Champions. But it had to begin somewhere. It had to happen for the first time.
These are the stats compiled by some of the game’s best on the path to their first championship. They would win more –many more—and at some point in all of their careers, were easily in the argument for being the best currently playing the game. One of them is, in most basketball circles, the consensus best player to ever grace the hardwood. They are all champions that had to begin somewhere –except one. One has yet to win. But if he does, he looks to be following in the footsteps of giants.
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The playoffs of 1971, 1980, 1981, 1991, and 2000 changed the league forever. Each time, a naked hand received its first ring and never looked back. Young boys became men on the basketball stage, displaying their mastery on their way to the title. In each of these years, the dialogue was the same: “(Insert name here) has truly arrived.” The numbers above barely scratch the surface of the burgeoning careers that were on display. You could see it on the court. There was something, no pun intended, magical about the way they chased down the ultimate prize. It seemed destined.
This season, a sixth name looks to join this list –to win his first title on his way to a prolific career. Five of these names are either already, or sure to be, in the Hall of Fame. The other has yet to prove he belongs. The other is Kevin Durant.
If Kevin Durant can finish this journey, and win his first title at the young age of 23, his performance in the 2012 playoffs holds its own against the names above him in the table. Amidst a list of all-time greats, Durant’s numbers not once rank last. His per game scoring ranks second only to Jordan’s first championship run (a run that occurred much later in his career). Durant’s free-throw percentage is only bested by Larry Bird, one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game. He is third in win-shares, fourth in rebounds per game, and fifth in assists. And he’s younger than three of the legends he follows.
But it isn’t just the numbers that suggest Durant’s potentially historic playoff run. It’s the path he’s taken. Often, to be the best, the cliché holds that you must beat the best. This has happened time and time again throughout NBA history. Michael Jordan’s first championship involved facing off against champions Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Joe Dumars. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had to stare down one of the original big-threes in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor en route to his first title. Bird went through Moses Malone, Magic through Dr. J, and Kobe had to surpass an aging Scottie Pippen. In each of these defining years –when kings of the game first earned their crown—they had to usurp it from someone else.
Perhaps it is blasphemous to whisper Kevin Durant’s name in the company of those destined to don the Mount Rushmore of basketball. He isn’t there, yet. He is 23, not yet fully grown into his man-body (as Skip Bayless calls it), and still developing his skills as a defensive threat and leader. But that’s the point. At one juncture, Michael Jordan wasn’t Michael Jordan. Magic wasn’t magic. Larry Bird wasn’t Larry Legend. Kobe was the son of a player named Joe, and Kareem was a kid named Lew. They had to prove it on the court before they could forever live in infamy. The seasons above were defining moments in accolade-filled careers –the beginnings of something great.
Anyone who has been watching Kevin Durant tear through the 2012 playoffs has to believe they are witnessing the beginnings of something great. It goes beyond the numbers –beyond the faces he stares down as he sinks the shots that matter. You can see it in his eyes. He wants it, and he’s not afraid to go get it. It’s a quality that some analysts call the “clutch gene”, and others call it, well, it. Kevin Durant, in these playoffs, clearly has it. When all is on the line, he holds the ball with such cool resolve that the result seems inevitable –it’s going in the basket, period, end of story.
In these playoffs, beyond the great numbers mentioned above, Durant has played masterfully in the fourth quarter. He’s made 29 field goals in the final quarter of games, thus far. Ten of those field goals have come within the final three minutes of the game. An incredible 19 of those field goals have come when the difference between the two teams is five points or fewer. The three that Durant hit with thirteen seconds left to break a tie against the Lakers never felt like a miracle. It felt like an inevitability. It felt like Kevin Durant had arrived.
The journey isn’t completed yet. If the Spurs or an Eastern foe find a way to derail Kevin Durant’s quest for his first championship, all of this will be moot. He’ll be a star, yes, but not yet a champion. As Lebron James can attest, there is certainly a difference. There are those who are stars of the game –and there are those who become part of its fabric and legacy. Kevin Durant would have to come back and try all over again. But if he succeeds, and on a warm night in June hoists a trophy to the raucous crowd of Oklahoma City, this may be the beginning of something incredible –something legendary.
Remember: once upon a time, Michael Jordan wasn’t His Airness…Magic wasn’t magic. There’s always a moment of definition, of transition –of jaw-dropping realization that history isn’t made in the past, but the present. We’re due to witness another such moment. The star of Kobe is fading to the undefeated Father Time, and someone must be poised to step up to the throne.
We thought it would be Lebron James that would lead the next dynasty. We thought the talents of South Beach would raise the next banners of basketball. As usual, the small-market of Oklahoma City went unnoticed. Not anymore. Durant, only 23, is a rising stock, surrounded by 23-year-old Russell Westbrook and 22-year-old James Harden. He’s leading the way. He’s hitting the shots.
And if he can win five more games, this season’s sweetest end could be a truly thunderous beginning –a sign of many more storms ahead.