Rookie Challenge: Durant's soar spot
Tonight was the exception -- a deeply entertaining, glorious exception, one that was made possible by an unusually strong rookie class, a few weak selections for the sophs and an unusual number of teammates competing against one another.
And thanks to those conditions, we were treated to a coming-out party from a rapidly ascending star -- one who has garnered shockingly little attention 'til tonight. Kevin Durant's virtuoso 46-point explosion included 30 after the break, when he single-handedly rallied the Sophs from a 12-point deficit to win 122-116. His performance, on 17-of-25 shooting, was so dominant that virtually everyone who watched was left to conclude that Durant was playing in the wrong game.
"I believe he should have been in [the All-Star Game] this year," said Oklahoma City teammate and fellow sophomore Jeff Green, who compared Durant to Danny Granger's predicament in the Eastern Conference. "He played his butt off the first half of the season."
"It's kind of hard stopping 6-10, doing everything he can," said his other Thunder teammate in the game, rookie point guard Russell Westbrook.
Indeed, Durant's performance was hardly unusual of late. Since Jan. 1, he's averaging 29.9 points per game -- a total that would lead the league -- while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. With his size, quick release and ability to fling in jumpers from anywhere on the court, he has become a virtually impossible cover.
Alas, that didn't stop Westbrook from talking trash to Durant most of the night -- a strategy that seemed to backfire when a torrid Durant converted a 12-point rookie lead into a 13-point advantage for the sophomores.
"[Westbrook] was talking to the wrong person," Green said. "When he decided to talk trash I think Kevin took it real personal."
Westbrook and Durant both let each other know about it after big dunks in the first half, while Green blew a kiss toward Westbrook after making a dunk of his own. Westbrook jabbered with Durant on another occasion while breaking a play in order to try taking him off the dribble -- solely because he saw who was guarding him.
"Lots of trash-talking back and forth," said Green. "There are a lot of bragging rights for this game, we've been talking about it for the past two weeks [but] it was all fun and games."
Perhaps the most damaging chatter, though, came in the second half when Green had the ball in the corner and found himself matched up against Westbrook. Westbrook dared Green to shoot the ball; Green gladly obliged; and when the ball went in, the sophomores had a three-point lead they would never relinquish.
"Russell was on me so I had to shoot it," said Green, raising his voice so the nearby Westbrook could hear. "He was begging for me to shoot it. I took one step, he backed up, I hit it right in his mouth."
"He's a guy that likes to talk a lot," Durant said of his rookie teammate. "But it's all fun. Us three guys, we're just excited to be here."
The feeling was mutual. Tonight's game was a coming-out party for the Thunder's entire rebuilding program as much as it was for Durant. They don't see much daylight outside their pint-sized market thanks to a brutally awful start, but they're quietly playing decent basketball of late behind their three young stars.
The public has been a little slow on the uptake regarding the rapid ascent of each, with Durant getting little All-Star attention and Westbrook a nonentity in most Rookie of the Year discussions, but this, perhaps, will get a few people's attention. Westbrook soared and finished at the basket, and created havoc on D, while Green showcased his vastly improved jumper at several key moments.
And then there was Durant. He soared in for flying dunks over the rookies' bigs, and then stepped outside and effortlessly rained in long J's, showing the total package that seemingly has the 20-year-old forward (yes, he's just 20) headed for a scoring title in the very near future.
As a result, we were treated to easily the best rookie-sophomore game in this contest's short history. And for the Thunder's young trio, it seems a harbinger of many more All-Star weekends to come.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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NBA Rookie 50
During the regular season, Scouts Inc.'s David Thorpe ranks the rookies and provides observations on the entire class. Rookie 50
Thorpe's weekly reports• 01/06: Who's bringing the D?
• 12/30: Big men making their mark
• 12/23: Hunting for playoff minutes
• 12/17: Mayo takes over No. 1 spot
• 12/10: Westbrook soars into top 10
• 12/02: Augustin races into top 10
• 11/26: Oden climbs back into top 10
• 11/18: Rose takes over No. 1 spot
• 11/11: Mayo jumps into top five
• 11/05: Fernandez shoots to top of the list
• 10/29: The debuts of Rose, Oden
• 10/24: Oden begins season at head of class