Is Kevin Durant Losing His Temper or Finding His New Image?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 27:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts as his team trails the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 27, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Oklahoma City Thunder megastar Kevin Durant has done everything in his power this season to shred his nice guy image with the same calculated approach he's used to carve up defenses over the past five-and-a-half seasons.

He's shunned the smiles and jokes of yesteryear, replacing them with profanity-laced rants at teammates, officials or anyone else thought to be standing between him and the Larry O'Brien trophy.

And frankly, it's making him an even more threatening assassin on the hardwood.

When he first hit the NBA stage in 2007, he had prodigy written all over him. A scoring savant from day one (20.3 points per game in his rookie season), he played the game with an unabashed giddiness.

It's not that his basketball ascension stemmed from anything other than determination and hard work, but he wore his appreciation of being one of the lucky ones getting paid through his passions on his sleeve.

But at some point over the past 12 months, he realized that there would be time for recollection and gratitude when his playing days were over.

For now, it was time to get his hands (and his image) dirty.

He partnered with Foot Locker on a campaign to show the basketball world that we might not know as much about who he really is as we thought we did.

But he needed more than a few clever commercials to find the brutal competitiveness that has accompanied so many of the league's biggest stars.

The first step in the transformation was a renewed focus on pestering the opposition on the defensive end.

With his size (he's the tallest 6'9" player I've ever seen), explosiveness and predatory instincts, Durant started demoralizing opponents defensively. He's built or maintained his steals and blocks averages in each of the past two seasons (1.6 and 1.2 per game, respectively this year).

Surrounded by a collection of some of the league's premier individual defenders, he's had the chance to roam. He's a regular threat for the block of the night, and more than capable of finishing off those plays with a dunk on one of his self-made fast-break opportunities.

Being a reigning three-time scoring champ and now an intimidating defender opponents have to account for helped build his MVP resume, but didn't guarantee him the edginess of a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan.

For that, he'd have to venture into an unexpected, uncomfortable realm.

He's, as expected, still adjusting to the darker side of elite status. 

After picking up his ninth technical foul of the season during the Thunder's Jan. 4 game with the Dallas Mavericks, Durant moved into a tie for the most in the NBA. He's now just seven regular-season technicals away from a one-game suspension.

Finding his edge is one thing, but a suspension is quite another. Durant knows that his arguments have sometimes gotten away from him, and he's "just got to shut up" before hurting his team (as he told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman).

Truth be told, we might not fully realize the effectiveness of his new identity until the postseason rolls around. Advertising firm Widen Kennedy staked its "KD is not nice" ad campaign around his evolution, but may not fully reap its rewards until July.

Durant doesn't have to be outright mean in his championship pursuit, but it hasn't hurt that his competitive drive has come off as such through the season's first half.