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CLEVELAND — Ski goggles hanging around his neck, black “Back 2 Back Champions” T-shirt covered in so much Moet Champagne that the residue dripped into every handshake, Kevin Durant was prepared for his press junket victory lap Friday night with his NBA Finals MVP trophy in one hand and a small of bottle of Modelo in the other. When he realized that one of those items probably wasn’t going to travel well, Durant took a giant swig of beer, placed the half-empty bottle on a table and commenced to gloating about having flipped the league upside down once again with the Golden State Warriors’ 108-85 Game 4 victory.
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Where the first time as a champion was an overwhelming, difficult-to-process moment, the second time gave Durant the opportunity to let loose and inhale the joyful fumes of a more hard-earned victory. Durant spotted David West, raised his hand for a high five and shouted, “Two-time!” When Draymond Green crept in from behind to interrupt Durant’s interview for “Good Morning America” with a pom-pom mimicking, pump-it-up dance, Durant looked over his shoulder, laughed and started doing the same move. And, when he finished his podium session with reporters, Durant paused with his father, Wayne Pratt, to watch a Nike commercial that captured his journey from running that high hill in his hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, to capturing a second NBA championship.
These moments, this unbridled happiness, are only part of what Durant had hoped to experience when he made the still-controversial decision to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016. Durant has gained so much more with the move — personally, intellectually, entrepreneurially and beyond — that he has stopped wasting his time worrying about how others feel about the move. Though well aware of the complaints, Durant is prepared with better retorts instead of heartfelt defenses. So, go ahead and tell him he took the easy-resistance setting to these titles. Tell him that he somehow ruined the NBA.
“My responsibility is to my skills. My responsibility is to myself,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not worried about the NBA. That’s their job. They make too much money. They ain’t paying me enough to dictate the NBA. I should be making more money if all that’s on me. My responsibility is to whatever team I play for. All that other stuff, that’s on y’all.”
Two Larry O’Brien trophies into an experiment to determine whether a superstar-laden NBA team can function without traditional, alpha-male dominance or dissension, the Durant-infused Warriors remain difficult to digest for some observers. Golden State has gone 8-1 in the past two Finals and became the ninth team to sweep its opponent on this stage — and the first franchise to record two sweeps. But instead of accepting the dominance, the Warriors have had to experience pushback — sometimes from current and former players — about being so good that they’re bad for the league.
Never mind that two franchises own 33 of the 72 championships in the history of the league, or that the Warriors needed to rally from a 15-point deficit on the road in Game 7 in the Western Conference finals to even have a chance to beat LeBron James for the third time in four years.
The Warriors don’t have to be embraced — fans can side with or against whatever they choose. A backlash generally follows sustained success, and Golden State was accumulating haters before Durant added another layer of resentment. But to Durant, being a part of a superteam with four All-Stars and two former MVPs probably doesn’t feel so odd when his previous organization, Oklahoma City, once had three future MVPs on the same roster before financial concerns led to a premature — and now regrettable — breakup after that trio’s only Finals appearance together in 2012. With ambitious owner Joe Lacob willing to do what’s needed to make sure the Warriors stay on top for as long as possible, Durant sees no reason to leave.
“The Bay Area allows me to be who I am, as a city, to just blend in, and the team allows me to do the same thing,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “All I want to do in my life, while I’m healthy, is to work on my game and enjoy the game and not worry about nothing else. This place gives me that. This is the best place for me to just play ball, work on my game, play ball, and not care about [expletive] that normal NBA superstars are supposed to care about.”
James stated that the Warriors star players face “no pressure” because there is never a demand for an elite performance every night, with two or three others capable of picking up the slack. Viewed through another prism, there is something about a team whose players openly root for one another and understand what one individual’s success could mean for the team. One of the more indelible images of this series was in Game 3 after Durant drilled a dagger from seven feet behind what was previously the most iconic shot of his career in last year’s Game 3. Green shouted unmentionables and Stephen Curry started crooning in Durant’s face while Durant mean-mugged fans at Quicken Loans Arena, taking cold-blooded pleasure in their misery.
“Basketball, to me, isn’t about everybody revolving around what I do and how I feel. That’s never how I wanted to play and that’s never how I wanted to approach a team,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “So to be one of guys, that’s what I always wanted. That’s how I was brought up as a basketball player, as being one of the guys. I think it’s more special when you do it with people who support you and love you, care about what you do as a ball player. It’s not always just about you. And that’s the reason why I came here — an unselfish environment where they just care about the game. All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”
Durant scored a playoff-career high 43 points and snatched hold of the Finals MVP after Game 3, especially since Curry had the worst Finals game of his career. The unfair and often ignorant criticism of Curry, a two-time regular season MVP, for not claiming the one honor missing from his resumé wasn’t something to which Durant wanted to contribute. And when the Cavaliers geared up their defense to slow him down, Durant willfully deferred to Curry, letting his string of 13 straight Finals games with at least 25 points come to an end and finishing Game 4 with his first Finals triple-double.
“Obviously as the best individual players, we all want to play well and I know Steph doesn’t care about stuff like that,” Durant said of the Finals MVP. “I really wasn’t expecting to do any of this. I was just trying to win. MVPs or not, I think we both played great basketball.”
Never thinking that basketball would even take him out of Maryland while growing up, Durant is in awe of what he continues to accomplish. He became the sixth player in NBA history with Finals MVP honors in consecutive seasons, joining Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and James. Only 12 players have multiple Finals MVP honors, with Magic Johnson, Willis Reed, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan being the others.
“Kobe, M.J., LeBron, Kareem, those dudes drive me, they push me every day to get to that level, to that standard and I want to be able to sit back and talk to them about basketball one day,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I’m happy I’ll be able dial up some of them and get some equity in that deal when it comes to being able to talk amongst the greats and experience what they experienced.
“I feel like it’s easy to be the best player when you don’t have good players around you. I feel like it’s harder to stand out when you have great players around you,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I pride myself on standing out wherever I am. I pride myself on working hard wherever I go. And I feel like these guys embraced me and I feel like I’m a Warrior.”
Coach Steve Kerr has repeatedly stated that this has been the most difficult season during this four-year run because of the challenges with injuries and complacency. Durant has repeatedly compared the struggles in his second season with the franchise to being a musician trying to duplicate the magic of a groundbreaking debut. Fans might not appreciate or care to acknowledge that the Warriors had to overcome some adversity because the result remains the same. But Durant and his teammates know. This wasn’t some cake walk. That’s why the celebration couldn’t be muted.
Before heading to the locker room for a much-needed shower, Durant was stopped by comedian Chris Tucker for a photo request. Durant obliged, got dressed in the low-maintenance sweatsuit that became his signature look this postseason and exited the arena, filled with the aroma of alcohol-soaked carpet. A few hundred feet up the hallway, that half-empty beer still rested on the table, unmoved, forgotten. Durant didn’t need to touch it, just as he’s now earned the right to avoid any further explanation of what led him to Golden State.
“It feels good to go through it with these guys,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “It feels good to come in here and work with the coaching staff, just everybody that we have with this organization just helped me get better as a player, helped us get better as a team. The people that come in and rebound for me when they don’t have to, the video guys who work us out, help us as players. I just appreciate that. That’s all I’ve been thinking about.”
More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Durant claims 2nd straight Finals MVP honor
• Warriors complete sweep to win championship
• NBA players are already recruiting LeBron
• LeBron: ‘I pretty much played the last 3 games with a broken hand’