OKLAHOMA CITY: Kevin Durant was gone from the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room, having swapped his jersey for a Jimi Hendrix shirt and headed off to the late Thursday night (Friday in Manila) press conference inside Chesapeake Arena.
There was a series-clinching win over the San Antonio Spurs to discuss, and with it an unexpected appearance in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Golden State Warriors that is their fourth in the past six seasons.
“This is not our championship,” Durant had declared.
But his sneakers, those blue and white, size 17 Nike “KDs” that he wore during his 37-point outing in Game 6 and swapped out for dress shoes before meeting with the media, were left behind. And in truth, they said all you need to know about his state of mind these days.
Written atop the left shoe in black pen: “Have fun. Never quit.”
And on the right: “Smile. Heb 12.”
At a time when the decibel levels around him are reaching a fever pitch, the basketball world wondering what every game might mean for his uncertain free agency future, it’s quite clear that Durant is tuning it all out by getting back to the basics.
Stay in the moment, he keeps telling himself. Let the future unfold. Enjoy this game that you love. Stay true to yourself. Durant has always been the spiritual sort, and so it made perfect sense that this particular passage, Hebrews 12, was on his mind.
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” it reads.
And what a remarkable run this has been.
There’s so much of this Thunder season that will never show up in the box scores, a subtext that must be mentioned when discussing where they are now and where they’ve been. It went way beyond the obstacles of the recent years, all those ill-timed injuries to Russell Westbrook and Durant and Serge Ibaka that led to so many what-ifs these past few postseasons.
The Feb. 20 death of Ingrid Williams, the wife of assistant coach Monty Williams who was killed in a car crash that left their five children without a mother and the Thunder without an invaluable voice on the bench. The March 2 death of Aubrey McClendon, one of the original minority owners of the Thunder who was killed in a one-car accident. The murder of Demetrius Pinckney just days later, the brother of Thunder guard Dion Waiters gunned down on his dirt bike in Philadelphia after an argument had erupted.
Every tragedy brought with it another emotional hill to climb, the heaviness of it all more than enough to derail them from the nightly basketball task. Instead, as Durant made clear, they grew closer through it all. And when playoff time came, they channeled it.
“Man, it’s just staying in the moment, enjoying everything along the way, embracing every moment – good and bad,” Durant told USA TODAY Sports after Game 6. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us or anything, but it was definitely different.
“It was a different season for us. With Coach Williams not being here – he’s such a huge voice in the locker room – to Dion, whose brother was murdered, just knowing the fact that we weren’t in this (playoff) position last year. There’s so many emotions we try to bottle in, and also let it out when we’re on the floor. And I think guys did a good job of using basketball as a refuge, just letting it out and letting that be a shield for everything and just being yourself when you’re out here on the floor.”
This Warriors challenge is as tough as they come, but Durant and the Thunder have no shortage of reasons to be hopeful.
While they went 0-3 against Golden State during the season, anyone who watched those games knows they can push the team that went an unprecedented 73-9 during the regular season. Durant, in particular, dominated the Warriors in those matchups: 36.3 points (52.9 percent shooting overall, 47.6 percent from three-point range, 96.4 percent from the free throw line), 12 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game (6.3 turnovers per game as well, which he’ll need to rectify).
Durant scored more against the Warriors this season than any other team in the loaded Western Conference. He’s leading all scorers in the playoffs, too, averaging 27.3 points per game – and in terms of accuracy (43.5 percent overall shooting, 27.9 percent from three-point range), he could be even better. Meanwhile, his running mate, Westbrook, bounced back nicely against the Spurs after a Game 3 outing that threatened to cut this run short. Westbrook is averaging 25.5 points (41.1 percent shooting overall, 32.8 percent from three-point range), 10.8 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game.
“It’s fun that we’re here, but we can’t get too excited,” Durant said. “We expected to come out here and play well, and we know that it’s going to be a rough playoffs, a tough postseason. We got through two series, but that’s not all we wanted. We want to keep fighting, to keep going.”
They’ve done just that. And after so many months in which the Warriors, Spurs and LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers dominated the NBA conversation, the Thunder – with Durant and Westbrook leading the way like old times – are back.
“Those (other teams) deserve all the credit in the world,” Durant said. “Their play spoke for itself all season, both (the Warriors and Spurs), and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they deserve a lot of credit too. It is what it is for us.
“We just want to go out there and play and worry about what we can control, and that’s just us going out there and playing extremely hard, playing for each other, and enjoying the process. It’s not about what people say about us, or none of that. It’s just fun to go out there and compete every night with my brothers.”