Kevin Durant the Kobe Stopper in Game 3
We're not putting Kevin Durant in Jordan's category yet. He's nine scoring titles behind him.
But if Durant ever ends up even in the same zip code with Jordan when it comes to being a fantastic all-around player, Thursday night was a good start.
The Oklahoma City Thunder forward had a miserable offensive first half against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series at the Ford Center. Durant shot just 2-of-10 for eight points. But he kept his focus elsewhere, grabbing 11 rebounds and playing solid defense.
The third quarter wasn't much better. By the end of it, Durant was 4 of 17 for 17 points. But he added five more rebounds and was still playing good defense.
But the fourth quarter will go down as a Durant gem. Not only did he finally find the range on his shot, shooting 4 of 7 to finish 8 of 24 on the night for 29 points, he kept rebounding, finishing with 19. And he might have played the best defense of his life.
With the Thunder outscoring the Lakers 27-21 in the fourth quarter en route to a 101-96 win, Durant surprised the Lakers by guarding star guard Kobe Bryant throughout the quarter. Bryant's ugly numbers while playing all 12 minutes: 2-of-10 shooting for four of his 24 points, including one shot swatted away by Durant.
"I probably guarded him in the regular season 10 or 11 possessions,'' Durant said. "And [assistant] coach Ron Adams just said (before the start of the fourth quarter), 'It's your turn.' I just tried to play my hardest. He missed some shots. ... I was just praying that they were going to to bounce off the rim.''
Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks was named as NBA Coach of the Year on Wednesday. Maybe there needs to be an NBA Assistant Coach of the Year. At least Adams has to go down as Assistant Coach of the Night.
"Yeah, you know, it was a matchup that caught me by surprise,'' Bryant said. "I think he did a good job.''
Wait a minute. Bryant has been in the NBA for 14 seasons, and something surprised him enough for him to admit it? Wow.
Durant, in his third season, received some maligning early in his career for his defense, not helped by the fact he's so skinny. But Durant has improved greatly over the past year or two on that end, and Thursday on national television was a coming-out party.
"[It] was, I think a big sign of his growth,'' said Oklahoma City forward Nick Collison. "He struggled early (in the game), but still found a way to help the team. He got 19 rebounds. He battled on defense. He just stuck to it and made big shots down the stretch, and got his offense going.''
Put it all together, and the Thunder have cut the Lakers' series lead to 2-1. And Bryant now has one more thing to worry about entering Saturday's Game 4.
"He's so long,'' Thunder guard James Harden said of the 6-foot-9 Durant being so effective on defense. "In practice, I try to shoot over him and he blocks my shot like a little kid's.''
In perhaps the most pivotal sequence of the game, Durant made Bryant look like a youngster rather than a guy who is 31 to Durant's 21.
With 5:25 left in the game and the Thunder leading 86-82, Bryant went up for a 15-foot jumper on the left side and had it rudely swatted away by Bryant. On the other end, Durant made a one-handed floater from the right side over Bryant for an 88-82 advantage with 5:12 remaining.
"My shot wasn't falling for me,'' Durant said of the tough start. "I tried to do other things, get some rebounds, and get some assists. ... I want to get better playing against the best player in the world. That's going to make me better on the defensive end.''
If you're listening, LeBron James, don't be offended. If the Thunder ever faces Cleveland in the Finals, no doubt Durant would call James the world's best.
But while King James figures to rule the East for a while, Durant is making some noise that one day he figures to pass Bryant for best in the West.
Not that Durant is even very close, but he was the one getting all the respect Thursday from the officials. He shot 12 of 13 from the foul line while Bryant, who averaged 7.4 free-throw attempts per game during the regular season, was a stunning 0 of 0.
"Not quite sure how to answer that,'' Bryant said when asked about his surprise over that goose egg. "Yeah. Both teams played hard.''
Turns out it was a night of unpleasant surprises for Bryant.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson