OAKLAND, Calif. – Kevin Durant has learned, painfully and repeatedly, that championships wait for no one. The game moves on, it evolves. What once seems promised quickly can vanish. As his latest best chance to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to that elusive title evaporated late Monday under a confetti shower at Oracle Arena, Durant hugged the triumphant Stephen Curry while seething and mourning inside.
"I hate to [expletive] lose. It sucks. I thought it was our year," Durant told The Vertical while shaking his head after his Thunder lost to the defending champion Golden State Warriors 96-88 in Game 7 of an incredible Western Conference finals series that won't soon be forgotten, "but sometimes it doesn't pan out that way."
Durant tried to the keep the most high-stakes season of his career going a little longer, staging a one-man rally that simply wasn't enough to dethrone a team that's on a quest for immortality more than anything else. The Thunder seemed destined for a similar chase when Durant and his dynamic running mate Russell Westbrook made their first NBA Finals in 2012.
LeBron James stood in the way that year, then injuries mostly caused the delay in subsequent years. Then, while Durant was away recovering from three foot surgeries last season, Curry and the Warriors jumped him in line while also spoiling James' grand homecoming plans in the process. Golden State wasn't going to move aside so a former MVP and four-time scoring champion could claim a spot he has long coveted. And, after becoming just the 10th team in NBA history – and the first in a conference finals since the 1980-81 Boston Celtics – to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, the Warriors don't appear interested in getting out of the way anytime soon, leaving Durant to ponder if his moment will ever come.
"I'm certain. I'm certain," Durant told The Vertical about his belief that he eventually will win the championship that cements a Hall of Fame legacy. "They don't love the game like I love it. Nobody knows how much I put in the work, how much I care about my teammates, about everything. I've given my heart and soul into this since I was 8 years old. Whatever happens, I'm certain. I feel confident that that moment will happen. I'm 27 years old. Hopefully, I can play a long time in this league but nothing is guaranteed. I know one thing for sure, I'm going to put the work in."
But as he walked out of the arena, flanked by his father, Wayne Pratt; agent Rich Kleiman of Roc Nation Sports; and manager Charlie Bell, Durant dived into another level of uncertainty that superseded when and if he will stop being the game's most accomplished active player without a ring. Durant will become the most coveted free agent this summer and very well could've donned a Thunder uniform for the final time.
Durant played his final game in a Seattle SuperSonics uniform in the same building eight years ago, before the franchise moved on to the plains of the mid-South. The wounds of Monday's loss to the Warriors were still fresh and Durant wasn't ready to immediately speculate on his future. Soon, he won't be able to avoid the question he has effectively dodged for nearly two years.
"What I got, a month? I don't know," Durant told The Vertical. "I've got to decompress, just reflect. And I really can't tell you. I'll know in the next couple of weeks – if I even think about it. But as of today, I have no thoughts, I have nothing to really think about. Just enjoy, reflect on this season and all we did as a team."
Despite the endless rounds of rumors and guessing games surrounding Durant, some in the Thunder organization have felt confident about retaining him beyond this season. General manager Sam Presti has assembled one of the deepest and most dangerous rosters in the league – one that was a few fourth-quarter meltdowns from upsetting a team that set an NBA regular-season record with 73 wins.
Durant has never been closer to a Finals return, never been paired with a better version of Westbrook and never had so many weapons with whom to share the ball. The Thunder made significant strides in the postseason under first-year coach Billy Donovan and knocked off a 67-win San Antonio Spurs team in the second round ("We weren't supposed to be in this position," Durant said). Donovan was a successful recruiter during his time in college at Florida and already seemed to be at work after the game as he shared a hug and chatted with Kleiman outside the tunnel leading to the court.
The past year has presented its share of challenges for Durant – from the grueling road back from the most serious injury of his career, to the death of Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams's wife, Ingrid. Durant used those situations as motivation and never lost focus of where he was, and what he wanted to accomplish in Oklahoma City. Opposing players sent text messages, asking him to consider coming. Opposing fans showered him with affection when he went on the road. He couldn't avoid that he was in demand, but did a superb job of not letting a distraction become a disruption.
"I just think it's being able to play the game of basketball again, it was taken away from me. So I just wanted to enjoy every moment," Durant told The Vertical. "Of course, [thoughts on free agency] creep in. That's natural. That's part of this whole situation. That's natural for those thoughts to creep in, because you hear a lot of stuff. But I thought I did a good job of not letting it creep in to me being a basketball player and a teammate. And I was emotionally, physically invested, 100 percent, every single day. From practice to shootarounds, to games, to playoff preparation, everything, I was totally invested in it all."
Getting back this far required far more patience than Durant ever imagined. After losing three straight games to the Warriors, Durant was in no mood for "moral victories." Durant wanted the Finals – and another shot at James – so badly that the challenge this series was to stay out of his own way. The self-proclaimed “professional scorer” compensated for some rare offensive inefficiency by playing smothering defense as a rim-protecting, small-ball power forward. Before admittedly pressing in a Game 6 loss that could haunt him for a while, Durant quickly dismissed a question about James reaching his sixth straight NBA Finals, signaling a desire to no longer defer. The resentment in coming up short once again isn't necessarily related to losing to Curry and the Warriors, but from knowing that the winner of this series had every reason to believe it could defeat Cleveland in the next round.
Durant packed on Sunday for three games, confident the Thunder would advance for a long-awaited rematch with a player who once stood as his closest rival before Curry's arrival. But Durant was somber in the locker room after the game, taking a momentary break from his silence to huddle with Dion Waiters. Waiters will also be a free agent this summer, and Durant adopted him as almost a little brother by offering encouragement, sometimes in the form of four-letter words. Once a youngster who leaned on other veterans like Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed for advice, Durant joined Westbrook in providing leadership for several teammates playing prominent postseason roles for the first time. “Proud of all the guys, win or lose, proud of everybody for the effort they put in,” Durant said.
Durant's season is over earlier than he would like and ambiguity about his future looms on the other side, like never before.
"I have no regrets with anything," Durant told The Vertical. "You learn to appreciate every single moment as you get older. I know this moment doesn't come around often. I can't say I'm guaranteed to be back here again, but you can appreciate the journey and the growth. You see it a little different now that I'm older and I've seen it, I've seen it with everybody in this organization. [Expletive] hurts. I wish we could go to Cleveland. It sucks. But that's part of it. I wouldn't be who I am if I just give up. Long as I'm healthy and ready to go, every single day is going to be devoted to being a better basketball player."
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