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SAN DIEGO – The latest practice ended the way it usually has for Kevin Durant during his NBA career. He spent the end of his workout shooting foul shots, post-up jumpers and 3-pointers.
Durant said he has maintained such consistency with his work habits so he can become the best version of himself. Durant maintained he never navigated this grind in hopes to become the NBA’s best player.
“I never looked at it that way,” Durant said following practice on Wednesday at the University of California San Diego. “I always wanted to be the best I could be every day and be able to adapt in any situation out on the floor. I never tried to gauge myself against other players in the league.”
For better and for worse, others have.
First, Durant became one of the league’s rising stars during his nine seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise (2007-2016). Then, Durant fielded mixed praise and criticism for winning two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs on a Golden State Warriors team that fielded three other All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (2016-2019). And then a season after recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon, Durant blended his talent with Kyrie Irving and James Harden with the Brooklyn and played almost as dominant as he did before his injury.
So when Durant turned 33 on Tuesday, Nets coach Steve Nash tuned out the team’s rookies singing “Happy Birthday” because it hurt his eardrums. Instead, Nash marveled once again on Durant’s consistency through 15 NBA seasons.
“That’s why he’s one of the greatest players of all time,” Nash said. “He has a deep, deep love for the game of basketball. He wants to win. He wants to perform. And he puts in the time and the effort consistently to be there. If that wasn’t a part of him, he wouldn’t be as accomplished as he is.”
Turning point in Durant's development
Beyond his two NBA rings and Finals MVP’s, Durant’s eventual Hall-of-Fame resume also includes three Olympic gold medals, one regular-season MVP and 11 All-Star Game appearances. Durant pinpointed his seventh NBA season in 2013-14 as the turning point when he “started to feel like I established myself in the league.” Did that also mark the time Durant believed he had no weaknesses in his game?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Durant said. “I’m still learning and growing. But I do feel like what I bring to the table is always a positive for my team. I think I do things more positive than negative out there on the floor, but I do make mistakes.”
After all, Durant did not win an NBA title until his 10th NBA season. Last season, the Nets arguably could have eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals had Durant not stepped on the 3-point line before delivering a shot that forced the game into overtime instead of being a game winner. With the Nets trailing by two points, Durant also missed a 24-footer with .02 seconds left in overtime. Yet, Durant stressed such a playoff run would have been unsustainable amid injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
That also explains why Durant dismissed the thinking that the Nets’ season will be a failure if they don’t win an NBA title.
“Outside pressure really doesn’t matter much,” Durant said. “We all internally put pressure on ourselves because we hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to play well every time we step out there. That’s who we are as competitors. But as far as outside noise? No disrespect to you guys or family and friends or even our fans expecting us to do so much and if we don’t live up to those. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.”
How Durant has become more at peace
Durant did not always have that attitude as a young player. Or when he dealt with backlash over joining the Warriors. Or with the free-agency speculation during his final season with Golden State. One only needs to see his social media account at times. Yet, Durant maintained he has spent recent years at peace with both his game and how he complements his All-Star teammates.
“There’s thousands of players that play in this league and thousands that will play after you. So each one of us individually, there is a part of you that you want to establish yourself in this league,” Durant said. “Sometimes you may overthink it and think too much about reactions and opinions of others because you’re on this journey of perfection. But I started to relax a little bit.”
That mindset helped Durant chart a successful return from his Achilles injury. Last season, Durant said became pleased with his mid-range game and ball handling while seeing improvement in his 3-point shot once his conditioning improved. If not for Durant’s left hamstring injury that sidelined him for 25 games, Nash argued he was “having an MVP-type year.” After all, Durant’s scoring output last season (26.9 points) mirrored his career average (27.0). Durant also shot 53.7% from the field, which surpasses his career numbers (49.4%).
“It felt like a normal NBA season since I’ve been in the league,” Durant said. “My points go up and down, and my stats may change. But I feel like my approach was the same. My enthusiasm and my excitement for playing was the same. I felt normal.”
With Durant feeling at ease, it hardly seems surprising that he signed a four-year, $198 million extension with the Nets.
“I wanted to be here. I thought it was perfect timing for me to do so,” Durant said. “We all three talked about playing together for a long time. But their situation is going to happen on their time and when they want it to happen. We all respect that.”
Durant stressed he also respects Irving’s refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, despite New York City mandates forbidding him to play in home games. Durant expressed doubt it would reach that point.
“It’s on Kyrie, and that’s his personal decision on what he does,” Durant said. "It’s not on us to speculate what may happen. But we trust in Kyrie and I expect us to have our own team at some point.”
Instead, Durant seemed consumed with other things.
Though he helped Team USA win gold in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, Durant noted that his “endurance wasn’t as high when I came back.” Durant observed that “coaches are working nonstop to figure out a new way to play the game.” So in turn, Durant said he has focused on “mentally figuring out how can I use my tools to impact the game.”
“I just tried to strive for perfection every time that I’m out there,” Durant said. “I may not always be able to score, so I tried to make the right play. That’s what I tried to pride myself on – making the right play every time down. I definitely don’t do it. But I strive toward doing it every night.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kevin Durant not consumed with surpassing LeBron James as NBA's best