ISTANBUL – Twenty-four hours earlier, Kevin Durant(notes) had scrunched his face, pursed his lips and played back the most arduous moments of the Los Angeles Lakers series. His accuracy stunning, his disposition downright dour, Durant ripped off a detailed list of the most minute transgressions that had cost the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had come to these world championships on a journey of self-discovery, on a rapid and resounding rise toward an MVP and an NBA championship.
"I missed a layup … I missed another easy shot … and a box out. We get one box out at the end of Game 6, and we're going back to L.A. for a seventh," Durant said. Here he was on the eve of one of the most devastating performances in Team USA history – a cold-blooded 38 points against Lithuania to advance the Americans to the gold-medal game – and his self-loathing over that Lakers series was refreshing and remarkable.
"If I make another play here or there …if I just…"
Kevin Durant wants more. He wants more out of himself. He pushes and pushes, chasing the kind of greatness that comes with burdening a championship chase. He's carried his team at the world championships, his greatness elevating the U.S. to the brink of gold for the first time in 16 years. Without him, Team USA would be catching a ride to a consolation game with David Blatt.
While LeBron James(notes) tried to decide this weekend whether he wanted to go to a college football game in the States, Durant had a decision of his own to make in the final seconds. Take an open shot for his 39th and 40th points, or drop the ball to Andre Igudoala for a dunk. Surprise, surprise: Durant flipped him the pass, Igudoala flushed the ball, and the Americans move into what promises to be a wild, raucous gold-medal game against host Turkey.
All the Turks did was win with a buzzer shot over Serbia and transform the loudest, most raucous arena you'll ever visit into something beyond bedlam. Durant isn't just taking Team USA to a title, but making himself the favorite for the 2011 MVP. He finished second in the voting to James in 2010, but Durant's destined to overtake him in 2011. Durant is much wiser, responsible and gifted than the sport has seen out of a 21-year-old in a long, long time.
He obliterated several USA Basketball scoring records Saturday, and that'll keep happening. Once LeBron and Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) come back to Team USA for the 2012 Olympics, they'll discover they need to move for Durant. They'll be fitting around him because he'll be the best player in the world.
For all the mistakes LeBron made this summer, perhaps his biggest was failing to believe he needed Team USA far more than it needed him. That Olympic gold medal was far more about Kobe Bryant(notes) and Wade two years ago, and James still never has taken a team that belonged to him and won a title. He needed the work for his leadership and image.
"It's been said that LeBron could've benefitted here this summer," USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. "But it was never a consideration."
Team USA wouldn't have turned away James, but privately they'll all tell you it's been a relief to have him tweeting from 5,000 miles away. This hasn't been the United States' most talented team, only the most pleasurable to be around. With Durant and Chauncey Billups(notes), two gentlemen and pros as the leaders, it's no wonder. No one misses LeBron barking at cafeteria workers to give him eggs or throwing his sweaty jersey on the floor and barking at officials to pick it up.
Durant wore 9-11-01 on his shoes Saturday, and in a dignified, devastating way delivered a forever performance against the Lithuanians. These are high-pressure, high-anxiety games, and Billups marvels at the value that'll come from it for Durant. "This is like the microcosm of an NBA season," he said. "The pool play is your regular season, and these are your playoffs. This teaches you the most important thing you need to know in the playoffs:
"You can never allow yourself to think you can let up for a moment, because you don't know you'll have another game in the series," Billups said. "Kevin is going to bring all this back to Oklahoma, and I don't think you can measure how much this is going to mean to him."
Durant has had the quietest, most understated summer of all. He signed his max contract extension and scooped everyone with a gleeful proclamation on Twitter. When James was hosting parties in Vegas, Durant was practicing with Team USA in the afternoons and his own trainers in the evening. When the Miami Heat walked out on a smoke-filled stage in South Florida, preening, declaring themselves perhaps the greatest threesome since the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Durant watched it all out of the corner of his eye – "The Decision," the parties, the self-congratulations – and kept coming for them in the gymnasium, and now, here in Istanbul at the world championships.
This summer started with the worst of the NBA, the worst of its self-aggrandizement and self-adulation and maybe it's self-destruction. Now, it ends 5,000 miles away, in the most dramatic and hostile environment a United States team has encountered on the international platform. It ends with Durant coming for a talented, tough Turkey team on a historic run that has inspired a nation into a basketball frenzy.
Here comes Durant chasing all the good things in basketball – the leadership, the learning, the world championship for the United States – and maybe this can still end in a proper way. At the close of the loudest, brashest NBA summer, the quietest star gets the final word.