LONDON — The skinny kid needed a talking to, not a lecture. It was time for a chat to remind him why the U.S. team needed him to be more selfish.
Kevin Durant wasn’t listening.
So Kobe Bryant spoke to him first. LeBron James followed.
“I told him, ‘If we don’t have the K.D. from Oklahoma City on this team then it makes no sense for you to be here,’” James said Tuesday while getting ready for practice. “We need that guy. We need the scoring champ on this team. We got guys who can do everything else, but we need that from him.”
James stopped and smiled.
“I’m happy,” he said, with a laugh. “He’s doing that.”
Doing. Shooting. Scoring.
Durant has become the Olympic team’s primary offensive weapon on an American roster filled with those types. James and Carmelo Anthony have scored on a par with him, but the majority of the U.S. team’s offensive sets are designed to get the ball in Durant’s hands.
On Monday night, Durant scored 28 points, including 17 during a torrid third quarter of deadly outside shooting, as the U.S. outslugged Argentina 126-97 in a rough game that included accusations of punches and cheap shots.
Durant’s performance was just what the Americans had been waiting for from the modest 23-year-old.
For weeks, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, his staff and Durant’s teammates have been urging him to shoot more, to score more and to dominate the way he did in leading the Thunder to the finals this season. Durant, though, has been reluctant, almost afraid. It’s not his nature to be forceful.
“I don’t want to step on nobody’s toes,” he said. “The last thing I want is for guys to say ‘All right, it’s time for you to stop shooting.’ But they get on me so much for not shooting when I’m wide open.”
His advice was simple.
“Just do me,” Durant said. “He told me to do what I do. Coming from one of the greatest players to ever play, I’ll take that.”
Durant has been inspired ever since — he’s averaging 18.6 points and shooting a mind-blowing 61 percent (20 of 33) on 3-pointers in five games. He’ll need to stay motivated if the U.S., which plays Australia in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, intends to win a second straight Olympic gold.
One was longer than the next, and every time Durant prepared to shoot, players on the U.S. bench stood and grabbed each other’s arms in excited anticipation before dancing, waving towels or in Andre Iguodala’s case, diving on the floor when his shots splashed through the net.
The Americans threw a similar bench party a few nights earlier when Anthony made a record 10 3s in an 83-point win over defenseless Nigeria.
“That gives you more confidence than seeing your shot go in,” Durant said of the sideline support. “Seeing these All-Stars and these champions and these guys that carry franchises and cities on their backs, to see them cheer for you like that, that gives me the ultimate confidence to go out there and play hard.”
Yet he makes it look so easy.
Durant glides around the floor, his slender, 7-foot-frame gracefully moving across the hardwood like a ballroom dancer. There is no wasted movement, no awkward starts and stops. Durant’s size allows him to shoot over defenders, giving him an unobstructed view of the rim.
And when he sets his feet and takes aim from long range, Durant simply flicks his wrist and the ball is away — smooth, seamless.
“A 3-pointer to him is shot like a free throw,” Iguodala said. “It’s effortless for him.”
Durant’s just getting started.
The U.S. team’s leading scorer on the 2010 world championship team, he averaged 28 points per game last season for the Thunder. In just five years as a pro, he’s already scored 9,978 points. By comparison, Bryant scored only 6,178 in his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
At the rate he’s going, Durant’s numbers may one day dwarf everyone’s.
“I said this two years ago and people looked at me like I was crazy, but they’re starting to see some life in it,” Iguodala said. “He may be the all-time leading scorer in NBA history when he’s done playing, just because he scores so easily. He can average 30 a game for the next 10 years and even after that, when he’s 34, 35, 36, he can still get 15 or 20 a game and become a stand-still 3-point shooter.
“Offensively, there’s really no ceiling for him and he doesn’t even need a go-to move because scoring is so easy for him. It’s incredible.”
He’s beginning to come into his own, and Durant’s experience in these Olympics should help him reach his immense potential. Right now, he doesn’t realize how good he can be.
“Not yet,” said James, named MVP for the third time this season. “But I didn’t either when I was 23 or 24.”
“No,” Bryant said, chuckling, “and I’m damn sure not going to say it.”