OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Kevin Durant had finally reached the pinnacle.
After years of chasing LeBron James, the Thunder forward finally was named league MVP two seasons ago. His emotional acceptance speech was as memorable as his play, and soon, endorsement deals piled up like points for the four-time scoring champion.
Everything was moving in the right direction heading into last season. Superstar point guard Russell Westbrook, who had missed much of Durant’s MVP run due to injury, was healthy again, making the Thunder one of the favorites to win it all.
Then it happened.
Durant, the most reliable of ironmen, broke a bone in his right foot. It required three procedures, and a player who had missed 16 regular-season games in his first seven seasons missed 55. The Thunder didn’t make the playoffs, Golden State won the NBA title and Stephen Curry replaced him as MVP.
Through it all, Durant kept reminding himself who he had been, and who he planned to become once again.
“I just told myself every day that, ‘I’m the best player in the world,’” Durant told The Associated Press. “’I’m the best player in the world.’ I wrote that on my wall. I wrote that on my mirror in the bathroom, just because it’s easy to say that when you’re on top of the world, but it’s kind of hard to say it when everybody’s dogging you.”
Durant listened to his doubters and made it a goal to shut them down.
“I was able to change the perception that was out there of me of, ‘I won’t come back from this, this is going to be devastating, career threatening,’” he said. “I just used all of that. I think that type of pride is good for the game of basketball — just wanting to prove yourself after you fall down and wanting to stand back up even taller and stronger than I did before.”
Durant has some opportunities this month to make an even stronger claim to being the best. Oklahoma City hosts James’ Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday and Curry’s Warriors next Saturday.
It wasn’t clear immediately whether he’d be ready to make any kind of claim, but after limited minutes in the preseason, Durant announced his full return in the second game of the season. He dropped 43 points in 54 minutes during a double-overtime win at Orlando.
He missed six games in November with a left hamstring injury, but bounced back again. He shared the Western Conference Player of the Month award with Westbrook in December, then won it in outright in January.
For the season, he ranks third in the league with 27.8 points per game. He’s also posting 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting .508 from the field. He said it’s meaningful to be playing at such a high level.
“I put in the work,” he said. “We talk about individual success a lot, and we kind of deem that as being selfish when you think about yourself like that. But I looked at it as the total opposite. I felt like I needed to think about myself a little bit more. I needed to worry about my health, and my game, my mindset.”
Thunder general manager Sam Presti took some time to reflect with Durant before this year’s All-Star game.
“I’m truly grateful for the fact that he was participating in the All-Star Game, healthy, with a great spirit, having fun,” Presti said.
Indiana forward Paul George, whose broken leg cost him most of last season, also has bounced back and regained his place among the league’s elite. He worked out with Durant at times during rehab and is impressed with how his friend has recovered.
“It’s either or,” George said. “There’s guys who have that self-doubt, that can’t get back to where they were, and there’s guys that live up to that moment. Knowing at the end of the day where he wants to be, and that’s one of the league’s best players — ultimately, at the end of his career, one of the league’s best players — that’s what it comes down to. Same way for me. My approach for coming back from my injury was wanting to be back to who I was.”
Durant was especially good in the final 16 games heading into the All-Star break, and it went beyond points. He averaged 30 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field as the Thunder went 14-2.
“Since he’s been in this league, he’s proven to be one of the great scorers of right now, but maybe the history of the game with his efficiency,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think the one thing I admire with Kevin is his willingness to pass and make people better and be a playmaker. I think there’s so much more to his game than scoring.”
Durant is thriving while Westbrook is peaking, too. Last season, Westbrook won the scoring title, in part, because Durant was injured. This season, Westbrook is averaging 24.1 points, 10.1 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game.
With the two playing at a high level, the Thunder feel they have a chance to push for that elusive NBA title. Westbrook, who missed significant action two seasons ago with a knee injury, fully expected Durant to return to form.
“It’s just being resilient,” Westbrook said. “He’s worked so hard to put himself in position to where he was able to get back and actually be better than he was before.”