OKLAHOMA CITY – Everybody wanted a picture with the NBA's greatest young star. Friends, family members, the NBA's omnipresent and eternally leather-clad fan, Jimmy Goldstein – even Kevin Durant's own mother. Thursday morning was closing hard on Wednesday night, and Durant had wandered onto the court to find his mom for one more kiss. As they hugged, the arena's overhead video scoreboard, lowered for some maintenance work, continued to flash the Oklahoma City Thunder's newest title: Western Conference champions.
The parade of well-wishers met Durant the moment he emerged from the arena's tunnel and stepped onto the floor. For nearly 20 minutes, Durant obliged them all, taking pictures, signing autographs, no one wanting the night to end. Neatly dressed in sea-foam slacks, plaid belt and blue sportsjacket with a flower on the lapel, Durant looked like he was headed to the prom instead of the NBA Finals. Finally, he pulled his mother close one last time and asked:
Yes, they're ready. Every last one of them. These young Thunder. The proud city they've carried on this magical ride. Durant's led them all. From the rubble of a 23-win season, from a 2-0 hole against the San Antonio Spurs in the West finals, from an 18-point deficit on Wednesday night, he's lifted them on his slender shoulders.
"I never want to take those moments for granted," Durant said. "I know we're just one step closer to our dreams."
These playoffs have become a coming-of-ages story for Durant and his Thunder. They swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, dismissed Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games and ran off four consecutive victories against the Spurs after everyone questioned their resolve. The Spurs didn't give back these West finals as much as Durant and the Thunder took them. Standing against a wall in the quiet of the Spurs' locker room late Wednesday, Tim Duncan said what so many had believed just a week earlier: "I thought this was definitely our time."
The West now runs by Durant's clock. He's just 23, and, still, he was tired of waiting. From the Thunder's ferocious point guard, Russell Westbrook, to their cool-headed and crafty reserve, James Harden, they all believed the same: They didn't need to respect their elders anymore; they needed to beat them. No longer is age an excuse for the Thunder. It's an asset.
"I think the youth is kind of something that wills us," Westbrook said.
The Thunder speak often of their "family," and it's true. So many of them are so young, they've all grown up together. All these team-is-one mantras can get a little nauseating to outsiders, but the Thunder believe them. You won't find Durant alone on billboards in Oklahoma City. It's all team shots or pictures of the Thunder flag. The photos lining the walls of the Thunder's arena and practice facility are the same: players' hands clasped in a huddle; a snapshot of the team's logo on a player's shorts. No one individual is greater than the whole, conventional marketing plans be damned.
This is all by design, of course. The Thunder's general manager, Sam Presti, learned under Spurs GM R.C. Buford and patriarch Gregg Popovich. He's built these Thunder using the Spurs as a blueprint. In Durant, Presti has his Duncan: a humble superstar who has embraced small-market comfort and convenience. He's given Durant co-stars in Westbrook and Harden and surrounded them all with pieces that have never fit so snugly. Derek Fisher, the notorious Spurs killer who was signed in late March, buoyed the Thunder with a late 3-pointer and a running bank shot. Kendrick Perkins, all grit and grime, blocked a layup attempt by Duncan to preserve the victory.
Asked afterward what sustained the Thunder, Westbrook chose a single word: "Togetherness." For all the "band-of-brothers" drivel Erik Spoelstra likes to recite from Pat Riley's self-help books, the Miami Heat will never have a bond as thick as these Thunder. They can't. The Heat were brought together by the flourish of a pen stroke, a creation of free agency. The Thunder have grown together, and they've been hardened by those lost seasons, by the experience of failure. They've been protected by the embrace of a community that believes they can do no wrong.
"I think as a group and as an organization, we've seen some light and we've seen that one day we'd be at this moment," Westbrook said, "and one day we'd have an opportunity to win a championship."
The Thunder's coach, Scott Brooks, instilled that belief in them. When the losses piled up in those lean seasons, he refused to consider them losses. "I was telling the guys we were learning how to win games," Brooks said.
They've continued to learn, too. After the Thunder lost the first two games in San Antonio, Brooks told his players they were capable of winning the series. They responded by attacking the Spurs like never before, smothering the Spurs' scorers with a wall of long, quick bodies. This was what the Spurs and everyone else in the league always feared: If the Thunder defended like this, if they played as one, then what hope did anyone have?
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stood on that stage in Miami two summers ago and yelled and screamed and boasted of winning multiple championships. Maybe they will, but eventually this league was always going to belong to Durant and his Thunder. They've conquered the West. Now comes the East.
It was late Wednesday, and Durant was standing in front of his locker, adjusting his collar and pulling his jacket tight. He started to walk off, stopped and took one more long look at the mirror. Something was missing. Durant reached into his locker and picked up one of those black "NBA Finals" hats. He set it slightly askew atop his head and strode out of the room. Never had he looked so self-assured.
Finally, Kevin Durant's time had come, and, yes, he's ready. The prom awaits.
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