Durant poised to take champs' best punch

An old playoff bully had delivered everyone a good laugh at the expense of basketball’s most earnest young star. Phil Jackson had baited Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant(notes), eliciting a visceral response while smirking his way to a $35,000 fine. In the immediacy of the moment, those words about preferential referee treatment felt like an insult to an uninitiated 21-year-old.

Kobe Bryant has helped the Lakers repeat twice.
(Getty Images)

Repeat performances

NBA defending champions have won the NBA Finals nine times with a 60-16 series record since the playoff field expanded from 12 to 16 teams.

Season

Champ.

How they fared the next season

1st
round

Conf.
semis

Conf.
finals

NBA
Finals

2007-08

Celtics

win
win

2006-07

Spurs

win
win
win

2005-06

Heat

win

2004-05

Spurs

win
win

2003-04

Pistons

win
win
win
win

2002-03

Spurs

win
win

2001-02

Lakers

win
win

2000-01

Lakers

win
win
win
win

1999-00

Lakers

win
win
win
win

1998-99

Spurs

win

1997-98

Bulls

1996-97

Bulls

win
win
win
win

1995-96

Bulls

win
win
win
win

1994-95

Rockets

win
win

1993-94

Rockets

win
win
win
win

1992-93

Bulls

win
win

1991-92

Bulls

win
win
win
win

1990-91

Bulls

win
win
win
win

1989-90

Pistons

win
win
win

1988-89

Pistons

win
win
win
win

1987-88

Lakers

win
win
win
win

1986-87

Lakers

win
win
win
win

1985-86

Celtics

win
win
win
win

1984-85

Lakers

win
win
win

1983-84

Celtics

win
win
win
win

1982-83

76ers

win

Only 24 hours later, Durant understood that the coach of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers had done something far different. This wasn’t an affirmation of how NBA referees felt about the burgeoning greatness of Durant, but rather how Jackson himself felt about Durant. After all, why else would he bother?

“I guess it’s flattering for him to think about me like that,” Durant said by phone.

All of a sudden, Jackson has climbed into his mind? Durant laughs a laugh that sounds something like: Come on everyone, give me a little credit. He sounds a little surprised that people believe the youngest scoring champion ever, a generational talent who elevated a flat-lined franchise to 50 victories out of nowhere, could suddenly be under the spell of a gimpy old man with a clipboard.

Durant isn’t thinking about the old man with the clipboard, he insists. “I’m thinking,” he said, “about getting my troops ready to go in there with them.”

Sometimes, it sounds and feels a little awkward with Durant. It just isn’t his nature to talk tough and snarl and declare enemies. He’s too polite, too grounded, too different a breed of prodigy. As much as anything, these final weeks of an improbably brilliant season have gone a long way in the formal education of Kevin Durant.

For all the angst in Oklahoma City over the Thunder’s recent sputtering and dropping to the eighth seed, it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to them. In the franchise’s formative stage, Oklahoma City didn’t need the chance to advance as much as it did the complete immersion that comes with a best-of-seven series with the Lakers.

Durant gets the full Hollywood treatment now – Kobe to Khloe. This is the series everyone wants to see, the generational clash of tomorrow meeting today. Dallas couldn’t have done this for the Thunder – not San Antonio, Denver on down the line. Durant’s immense talent demands a proper introduction to playoff basketball and it starts on Sunday at the Staples Center.

“You want to play the best, and that’s them,” Durant said. “The championship goes through those guys, and we’re not backing down from anybody,”

This is the way the Thunder need to hear Durant talk, because they’ll be watching him closer than ever now. He’s such a good-natured, grounded kid – so much the anti-star in the NBA’s alpha dog domain – that it can be easily misconstrued as softness. Those surrounding him warn that to be a terrible, terrible miscalculation of Durant.

He’s learning fast that the rest of the NBA isn’t as welcoming to a talent of his stature as he promises to be someday to the next player. On his way into the NBA, the Boston CelticsKevin Garnett(notes) was one of his favorites. He had someone make a DVD of his moves for him. Only, he found out what most young players do: K.G. would just as soon punch the next big thing in the mouth than offer a smile and a nod.

Kevin Durant averaged 25.8 points against the Lakers this season, but the Thunder lost three of the four games.
(Getty Images)

Yes, Durant was taken aback when Garnett was so dismissive of him after a late-season Thunder victory in Boston, the way he dropped that F-bomb describing how the referees carried Durant, how they treated him like Michael Bleeping Jordan. After all, Durant had been so respectful and complimentary after the Celtics beat Oklahoma City in the Ford Center.

All Durant will say is this: “I’m a big believer that you show respect to everyone in the game, especially the people that come along before and after you do. But, yeah, I know that everyone’s competitive. Everyone’s trying to get an advantage.”

That’ll never be so true as this Western Conference series with the Lakers, where the uneasiness about Kobe Bryant’s(notes) broken finger and Andrew Bynum’s(notes) aching Achilles and Ron Artest’s(notes) staying power as a stopper makes this series far from the forgone conclusion perhaps a No. 1 vs. No. 8 ought to be. As much as everyone wants to congratulate Jackson for baiting Durant into an irritated response, perhaps this brief episode was as much a window into the coach’s concern as anything else.

Durant is impossible to defend, and that’s true for the Lakers and everyone else in the NBA. They’ll struggle to keep point guard Russell Westbrook(notes) out of the lane, too. They’ll hate the way that Big 12 crowd in Oklahoma City will have these go-go Thunder running and running in Games 3 and 4. This is a big pain for the Lakers, but they’ll survive. Nevertheless, Kevin Durant is coming now, coming fast and it sure seems like Phil Jackson knows that better than anyone else.