Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets dunks during the first...

Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets dunks during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on December 10, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Todd Kirkland

The Nets are just a third of the way through the season, but there is no doubt Kevin Durant is the leader to win the NBA MVP award. His virtuoso 51-point performance in the Nets’ victory Sunday in Detroit when they were desperate for scoring in a game where they rested James Harden underscored Durant’s brilliance.

It was the highest-scoring game by anyone in the NBA this season, it set the record for Little Caesars Arena, and it inflated Durant’s league-leading scoring average to 29.4 points per game. In one stretch from the middle of the second quarter through the middle of the fourth period, Durant scored 35 of 55 Nets points and he had seven assists leading to 16 points, meaning he was responsible for 51 of those 55 points.

Asked if he ever had seen anyone dominate in that fashion, Nets coach Steve Nash smiled and said, "I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t remember it. He was just outstanding. His leadership, his willingness to keep us in it and also his defense was unbelievable in the fourth quarter as well."

Veteran guard Patty Mills spent 10 seasons playing on some talented Spurs teams before joining the Nets this season, but he was moved by Durant’s display of excellence. "It was very special," Mills said. "Obviously, special for him, but I think it’s special for everyone that was able to take part in that and be up close and personal to what happened tonight.

"It’s really special to see how he goes about his business off the court. Not a lot of people have the opportunity to see what goes into something like that. They see the result, and the result is unbelievable. But I think for me it’s special to see what happens behind the curtains and behind the closed doors, which makes it even more special. But an unreal game by him."

The Nets opened the fourth quarter with a 19-1 run to gain a 105-92 lead. Durant scored nine of those points and assisted on two other baskets, but he also picked up his fifth foul. Nash said he considered taking Durant out with the Nets clinging to a five-point lead at that time.

"We debated it," Nash said. "He had it going. He had the look in his eyes that he wasn’t going to want to come out. We tried to ride him there and begged that we didn’t get that last foul."

Durant’s ability to play both ends of the floor is what has set him apart this season when the Nets have emphasized defense while playing without Kyrie Irving, who remains unvaccinated. He truly has been dominant defensively.

"Defense wins games and gives you a little more of a leash on the offensive side," Durant said. "If we play great defense, then we’ve got a little bit more freedom on the offensive end. It starts with me as the guy that sets the tone on both sides of the ball, so I try to do that as much as possible."

No one in the NBA has done a better job than Kevin Durant so far this season.

Notes & quotes: According to an ESPN report on Monday, forward Paul Millsap has entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

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