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OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant’s first postseason run with the Golden State Warriors was a high tide let loose on a flimsy levee. The frightening annihilation of everything in his path helped Durant capture Finals MVP and earn proclamations from some that he was at least on par with, if not better than, LeBron James. Durant also demoralized seekers of competitive balance and had most observers pondering how much of a demolition would take place the second time around with more familiarity between Durant and his teammates.
But sequels rarely touch the original movie. The follow-up to an impressive debut album often fails to capture the same wonderment. That novelty fades into complacency because where there once was promise, there are now expectations of grandeur. Anything short of perfection is a letdown. Durant has admittedly experienced more frustrating moments in Season 2 of “The Super Warriors” but has tried to maintain perspective on what has been a “roller coaster” since the Western Conference finals.
“Usually the new thing is hard to stop,” Durant told Yahoo Sports, comparing this run to last postseason. “I don’t think it was easier. I just think it was new. The newness of it all threw a lot of opponents off guard sometimes, threw a lot of coaches off guard sometimes. Now, they’ve got a whole, full year to scout more, scheme more, build their team more. I think that’s what made it, not difficult, but more difficult than last season. I think that’s the beauty of a team coming together like this, trying to accomplish the ultimate goal, which is to win. Stuff is going to get harder and harder and it’s only going to make you better.”
When Coach Steve Kerr pulled Durant aside during Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to share a story about how Michael Jordan came to trust his teammates with the pass, Durant had no idea that the moment was being captured on camera or that it would go viral. Those conversations have been the norm since Durant came to the Bay Area to see if he could add some duper to an already super team. He’s leaned on Kerr for insight on Jordan, on assistant Mike Brown for details of Tim Duncan’s work ethic, on assistant Willie Green to learn what it was like to play with Allen Iverson.
“I really enjoyed that conversation. Just having somebody that was that close to the legend Michael Jordan tell me and feel confident that I guess we were in similar positions at the moment made me feel good about myself — that he can relate that moment to Michael Jordan,” Durant said with a smile about that interaction with Kerr. “I really, really appreciated that moment. I needed it as well. It was good to kind of get a reminder from guys that are successful in the league, whether it’s now or back in the past especially, that can give you some advice here and there when you need it.”
But Kerr’s history lesson/pep talk came also at a critical time during a game the Warriors eventually lost and Durant’s confidence was noticeably shaken as he had one his most forgettable performances with the franchise. And, while Golden State has won its past three games, Durant hasn’t escaped his struggles, aside from that flurry of ridiculous shots in Game 7 to close out the Rockets. Durant had a decent stat line in the Warriors’ 124-114 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers — 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists. But he didn’t make a shot in the fourth quarter, going 0-for-4, or take a shot in overtime. He did make four crucial free throws late in regulation, including those two after that controversial block/charge reversal, but later failed to box out J.R. Smith, which would’ve been disastrous if J.R. hadn’t gone full J.R.
“We’re all victims of our expectations that we’ve set,” Stephen Curry said. “I mean, the fact that they’re saying KD had a bad game is kind of funny, just with what you expect from him every single night. But we are all in this together.”
The first two rounds of this postseason gave the impression that the Durant-infused Warriors would produce more of the same — until Andre Iguodala went down, and the Houston Rockets devised a defensive scheme that made the Warriors too dependent on Durant’s ability to score in isolations and saw Durant too eager to revert to what he had known from his previous stop. At times, Durant appeared to be working in opposition to what made the Warriors one of the greatest teams ever assembled, and he assumed the brunt of the blame until the team finally persevered.
“The criticism, getting tested, that’s been happening my whole life as a basketball player. I figure that, at this point in my career, it’s all how I can fit with my team, the best that I can, every day,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the struggle, more so than anything. Some days, I may need to turn on a different version of myself. Some days, I may have to have another type of game, to still be effective. I think Coach [Kerr] trusts me a lot, to do a lot of stuff. Sometimes I don’t know which way I’m going to play and that can be frustrating. But it’s also challenging and fun, that your coaches and teammates look to you to do a lot of different things out there.”
Kerr was unable to separate Durant’s difficulty finding consistency from what the team has been experiencing throughout a title defense. The Warriors have had bouts of boredom and arrogance. Chemistry has also been challenged because they’ve been beset by injuries to important pieces, changing roles and unstable rotations.
“Last year was a pretty smooth ride, and we were clicking. We had a pretty healthy run,” Kerr said. “I think this year, it’s just been harder overall, just because of the cumulative wear and tear of the journey. Kevin has still been great. It’s been a little different vibe, but that’s OK. Every trip is a little different. We’re right where we want to be, and we’re all very confident that we’re going to get better from here.”
James nearly doubled Durant’s scoring total in Game 1 but one of the reasons Durant joined the Warriors was so that the burden wouldn’t be solely on him to respond to those kind of onslaughts. With Klay Thompson questionable for Game 2 with a high ankle sprain, the Warriors will need Durant to look closer to the version that they rode to their second title in three years to hold off a Cleveland team still smarting from that controversial opening loss. Kerr expects to see more from Durant, whom he referred to as one of those “ultimate confidence guys,” like Jordan and James, who instill hope simply because he’s on your side.
“There’s not many people on Earth who can do what he can do under pressure in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “He’s an unbelievable talent and safety valve anytime we need him to get a bucket. He’s focused. He knows he didn’t play very well in Game 1. He’s excited for Game 2.”
More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Say what? Smith opens up about NBA Finals blunder
• Draymond escalates feud with Cavs rival
• Klay has ankle sprain, striving to play in Game 2
• Shams Charania: How’s Smith’s gaffe may lead to a lost Finals for Cavs