Kevin Durant's unmatched scoring prowess has made him a strong contender for his first MVP award. It's everything else he is doing that might finally push him over the top.
Durant's new teammate, Caron Butler, has played with Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. With all due respect to those stars, Butler said, Durant's approach to the game stands out.
"He's an unselfish superstar," Butler said. "Probably one of the most unselfish superstars I've ever seen play the game. I haven't seen a guy like him who can score pretty much at will, but is such a willing passer and facilitator. That's the growth of his game."
Durant still scores more than anyone else — he's averaging more than 32 points per game and is closing in on his fourth scoring title in five years. He has scored 25 or more points in 40 consecutive games, the most by anyone in the NBA since 1988-89 when Michael Jordan did it for a second time.
Durant has scored at a career-high pace while also reaching a career high in assists and taking on more overall responsibility. Teammates and opponents say he is making the extra pass, handling physical play better, moving better without the ball — all with a fearless mentality that has helped his team stay at or near the top of the Western Conference standings all season.
"I've seen every type of defense," Durant said. "I've seen every type of defensive player, so nothing is new to me. You can be physical with me, foul me, you can push me out. You can do whatever. I'm still going to play my game, and I try not to worry about that type of stuff. I'm still going to do what I do and try to get to my spots, play my game and be aggressive. Do whatever you want. I'm still going to be me."
Durant's heightened awareness as a leader means setting the tone during practice and being vocal in the huddle during timeouts.
"I think we're seeing a natural progression with him," Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "He's more mature. He's more comfortable with himself and has a better understanding of the game. And now, he's not just thinking about how he's playing, he's thinking about how the team's playing — what can he do to help other guys.
"Some of it is in his play — the decisions he makes — and some of it is in addressing guys, talking to guys, trying to encourage guys. I just think he's a lot more comfortable."
Durant took on more of the scoring load while point guard Russell Westbrook was out following knee surgery, and coach Scott Brooks asked Durant to handle the ball more. He flourished in the role and his court vision improved. While Westbrook was out, Durant averaged 35 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 53 percent from the field as the Thunder went 19-7.
"He knew he had to do more to help his team have a chance to be successful and wait for Westbrook to get back," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. "I think they've (The Thunder) grown as a result of that. As Westbrook comes back, he (Durant) can step back, or they know that he can step up and do more, and Westbrook can play off the ball some now. He just does whatever it takes for his team to have a chance. The way this team has grown together — it's fun to watch."
Durant had one of his worst games this season Thursday against San Antonio, and he still finished with 28 points and seven rebounds. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich called him "scary," and shrugged about the streak of games with 25 or more points.
"He's a great player," Popovich said. "If anybody's ever seen him play, you shouldn't be surprised. He's something else."
Durant has long been known as one of the league's nice guys. He donated $1 million to the Red Cross after tornadoes in Oklahoma last year, and he recently lent his voice to Strong and Kind, an organization that creates programming to teach youths that kindness is a strength, not a weakness. Durant's calm demeanor matches those actions, but beneath the laid-back surface is an intense man.
"He has a real quiet confidence about him and a quiet competitiveness about him, but he is as competitive as I've ever been around anybody," Brooks said. "I get to see him every day in practice. I get to see him every drill that we put the group through, and he wants to win everything."
Sometimes, that fire burns out of control. As of Thursday night, Durant had drawn 14 technical fouls — a career high, and two short of a suspension. He had just 12 the first five years of his career, then 12 last season. Most of them have been a result of conversations with officials.
"Sometimes, to be honest this year, I wanted a tech to inspire my team to do something," Durant said. "I wanted a tech to psych myself up and make myself feel stronger and better than what I was doing and to pump me up a little bit."
Brooks has talked to Durant about toning it down, and Durant admits that nearing a suspension is taking things too far. He now ranks with the likes of lightning rods DeMarcus Cousins and Lance Stephenson. As of Thursday night, only Cousins had more technicals, with 15.
"I've got to be better and smarter with how I approach the refs, how I approach other teams," Durant said. "I guess I'm done with techs. I hope I'm done with techs. I can't guarantee I'm done with techs. I don't want to go out there and not play my game because I'm worried about two more techs, but I hope I'm done with them."
The Thunder have been willing to forgive Durant's occasional outbursts because of his overall play and the fact that he works so hard at his game. To his teammates, the big numbers have been nice, but the consistency is what has left them shaking their heads.
"He's ready to play every night," Collison said. "What he does is tough to do. I think we take it for granted. To be able to stay on for long periods of time; have to cut hard, catch the ball in the right spot and defend on the other end is tough to do. To be able to show that shows that he has an edge to him. He doesn't take a night off."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP