Move over, Kobe Bryant.
There’s about to be a new sheriff out west and his name is Kevin Durant.
It pains me to say this as a Los Angelino and Lakers fan, but I’m rooting for Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Well, me and everyone else outside of Southern California.
In this playoff series that tips off Sunday in Los Angeles, the torch will be passed from Bryant to Durant as the best player in the Western Conference and the second best player in the NBA behind LeBron James.
(I don’t know if Laker fans will be more offended by me rooting for the Thunder or referring to James as the best player in the NBA.)
Much of the country will be getting their first real look at Durant, who edged James for the scoring title at the age of 21, the youngest player in NBA history to achieve such a feat.
There have been whispers about Durant’s game all season, but unless you have NBA League Pass, your opportunities to watch the 6-foot-9 forward have been few and far between.
Dubbed the “Durantula,” what makes Durant’s game so unique is it reminds you of several former NBA legends — not just one. His length and wingspan reminds you of George “The Iceman” Gervin. His range and ability to get off any shot reminds you of Larry Bird. And his ability to score at will reminds you of a young Bernard King.
To put Durant’s 30.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game season in perspective, consider the fact that Bryant averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists at the same age.
Bryant is 31 going on 40 with the number of minutes he has logged during his 14-year career.
With a list of nagging injuries ranging from swelling in his right knee to a fractured right index finger, Bryant is slowly approaching the downside of his Hall of Fame career.
If you think the Lakers and head coach Phil Jackson aren’t worried about this series, you’re wrong.
On Tuesday, the Zen Master started working the officials before the playoff seeds were officially decided, questioning the preferential treatment Durant received from referees during the regular season, resulting in a $35,000 fine from the NBA.
“As far as calls he gets on the floor, I think a lot of referees are treating him like a superstar,” Jackson said. “He gets to the line easily and often.”
Jackson normally saves his Jedi mind tricks until at least the conference finals, which means he must view Oklahoma City as a threat against his lethargic Lakers.
Do the Thunder actually have a legitimate shot at beating Los Angeles?
With the way the Lakers have slept walked through the second half of the season and Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic all battling injuries, the Thunder have a shot if Ron Artest is unable to keep Durant in check.
Outside of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder are an average team at best. I call them the Oklahoma City Durants for a reason.
Durant has carried the Thunder all season, highlighted by a stretch of 29 consecutive 25-point games, second longest behind Michael Jordan’s 40 straight in 1986-87.
If the Thunder steal a game on the road at Staples Center, basketball fans (and Laker haters) will be jumping on the Oklahoma City bandwagon by the time the team returns home for Game 3 on Apr. 22.
A first-round upset by the Thunder would rival the Denver Nuggets upsetting the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994, the first eight seed to defeat a one seed in the NBA Playoffs. It would be a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that was left for dead less than two years ago in Seattle.
After a nasty fallout between owner Clay Bennett and the city of Seattle, the organization relocated to Oklahoma City before the start of the 2008-09 season. There was little reason for optimism after a 3-29 start but the turning point occurred when head coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired and assistant coach Scott Brooks took over on an interim basis. The Thunder went 20-30 to finish the season and haven’t looked back since.
As much as I would love to see car fires and participate in shenanigans throughout the streets of downtown Los Angeles following another Lakers championship, Durant and the Thunder advancing to the second round would be great for the NBA.
Fresh faces and new blood are essential for the development and growth of the league and fanbase.
The Oklahoma City Durants in 7.
Sorry, Laker fans.