OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant(notes) ran a brush over his head one last time then pulled the straps tight on his backpack. This was a new selection from Durant's apparently vast collection of book bags – gray with the initials "K.D." printed on the back – and teammate Eric Maynor(notes) was needling him about its contents. Two pairs of pants and one pair of Gucci shoes was Maynor's guess.
Durant smiled, but offered no confirmation. "I always gotta have my backpack," he said before walking out the locker room doors. Watching Durant in moments like this – long-sleeved shirt buttoned to his chin, book bag on his back – it's easy to wonder:
Is he going to the Western Conference finals or social studies class?
This is part of Durant's charm. He's the assassin who walks away from his kill sipping a carton of chocolate milk. He'd just scored 39 points to end the Memphis Grizzlies' season in a Game 7 performance so smooth he probably didn't need a shower … and 30 minutes later he's dressed like a sixth-grader.
For as young as Durant looks, he delivered a coming-of-age performance for his Oklahoma City Thunder in a 105-90 rout of Memphis on Sunday. He's just 22, and like most of these Thunder, his best days might still be years ahead of him. That Durant and the Thunder stand just four wins from reaching the NBA Finals shows how much they've already grown.
"We've been patient," Durant said. "Now we're here."
These Western Conference finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Thunder will match the franchise whose contending days appeared over versus the franchise who arrived at this stage a year or two early. Unlike their first two series with the Denver Nuggets and Grizzlies, the Thunder won't be favored, but they also shouldn't be dismissed. They're young, but they're talented – and they're tougher than they look.
This starts with Durant. He shrugged off one of the most forgettable performances of his young career to deliver one of his best. He rose above the pressure of Game 7 to do everything he didn't in Game 6. He buried four 3-pointers. He blocked three shots. More than anything, he attacked.
"He just stays with it," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Every day is the same with him. Good game, bad game, you'd never know."
Some of Durant's resilience was borne from all those painful nights, all that losing he endured his first two years in the NBA. From Day 1, he was thrown into a difficult environment. Ten minutes after the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Durant second behind Greg Oden(notes), they traded their best player, shipping Ray Allen(notes) to the Boston Celtics.
The message to Durant was clear: This is your franchise now.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti had strong ties to the University of Texas basketball program from his days with the San Antonio Spurs, and he believed Durant had the character to withstand what was about to come. This wouldn't be Tim Duncan(notes) joining a healthy David Robinson in San Antonio. Or Larry Bird instantly transforming the Boston Celtics into a championship contender. This would take substantial work.
Without Allen around, Durant would have to take the last shot. He'd have to learn to lead. The plan was always for Durant and the franchise to grow together.
The Sonics lost 62 games during Durant's rookie season and much of the criticism was aimed his way. He was a chucker and little else. He didn't defend. Durant heard it all. After he failed to bench press 185 pounds at the predraft camp, people wondered whether he'd ever grow strong enough to become a star. Even worse: They questioned whether he'd be a winner.
Said Durant: "People were saying we were going to be the worst team ever."
Many of the moves Presti made during that first season to improve the franchise's future came at a cost to present success. With a new ownership group already eyeing a move to Oklahoma City, Sonics fans viewed the rebuilding process with a far more skeptical opinion: Tank the season, erode support, bolt town.
By the start of next season, the Sonics had moved to Oklahoma City, renamed themselves the Thunder and drafted Russell Westbrook(notes) to be Durant's partner. The Thunder began the season 3-29, costing P.J. Carlesimo his job as coach along the way. Brooks brought a more measured approach, and the team eventually began to show progress midway through the season. When the Thunder made the playoffs a year ago, it was considered a surprise. When they pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the first round, the rest of the league realized they were becoming a team to fear.
"It was tough, but at the same time I could see that we were growing," Westbrook said. "We became closer, we got better.
"It's showing now."
It showed Sunday. While Durant took care of the scoring, Westbrook joined Bird, Scottie Pippen, James Worthy and Jerry West by producing just the fifth triple-double in Game 7 history – 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Some will take Sunday as a sign that Westbrook needs to worry more about facilitating than scoring, but this is also true: In those games where Durant didn't get his shots, he could have done more to free himself from his defenders. The coaching staff also could have put him in better position to get open.
None of that was a problem with the Thunder staring at the possible end to their season. They finally brook loose of the Grizzlies in what had been a fierce series and their longest-tenured player did the dirty work. Nick Collison(notes) totaled eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks while frustrating Zach Randolph(notes) for much of the afternoon. He had reason to savor the moment. Like Durant, he had suffered through that last season in Seattle and weathered the transformation of the franchise.
"We've really turned it around here," Collison said. "For a guy who's been through that, you appreciate it for sure."
During those lean years, Durant knew that if he worked hard, if he stayed strong, everyone else would follow. First to the gym, last to leave. That's been the motto of both Durant and Westbrook. When Nazr Mohammed(notes) was traded to the Thunder midway through this season, his point guard in Charlotte gave him a scouting report of what to expect. D.J. Augustin(notes) played with Durant at Texas, and he told Mohammed this: K.D. always works – on the court and in the film room.
"Everything," Mohammed said, "was 100 percent true."
Durant kept his head down Sunday. The Thunder showed their immaturity at times in the series, but they didn't spend much time celebrating the franchise's greatest victory. Even Kendrick Perkins(notes) had to smile at that.
"I keep reminding them we're right there," Perkins said. "We've come this far. We're not going to just lay down."
The Thunder have arrived here earlier than expected. Two years ago no one would have thought this possible. Durant weathered all that losing, and now he's headed to Dallas, four steps from the NBA Finals.
On his way out the locker room, he strapped on his backpack one more time. The way he sees it, his work is just beginning.