Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Durant out of playoffs, but decision on Thunder will wait


Kevin Durant has 27 points with seven rebounds in the Thunder's Game 7 loss.
— The first embrace was at mid-court, just before the floor was splattered with yellow confetti. He reached and grabbed the nearest teammate, and it was Dion Waiters, and he whispered in his ear. And then after he walked off the floor, there was a receiving line awaiting him: staffers, family members, friends, associates, all ready and willing to lend a soft shoulder to a man who desperately needed a hug.
This certainly looked and felt like a good-bye scene for Kevin Durant, and that was indeed the case Monday night. He's no longer in the NBA playoffs.
But that's not what you want to know today. You want to know whether it was really farewell, as in nice-to-know-you Oklahoma City, but your curiosity will have to wait.
Thunder vs. Warriors - Game 7
Stephen Curry scores 36 points as Golden State rallies from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Thunder, 96-88 to advance to the Finals.
These career and life-altering decisions aren't ready to be made when the wound is fleshy and red, when the Thunder just suffered a seventh-game gut punch in the Western Conference finals and thus find themselves out of The NBA Finals mix yet again. Although the Warriors are the defending champs, and had the decisive game on their floor, and the Thunder indeed showed up to play, and Durant led a late charge, this was a slap in the face to the greatest player in franchise history (Seattle and OKC).
How much more of a championship dry spell must a player of his caliber endure?
He will enter his 10th season when fall approaches and will turn 28. His one and only real shot at basketball nirvana was denied by LeBron James in 2012. And for more than half of his career, Durant has been a top-five talent (27.4 career scoring average) and once MVP. For sure, championships are earned, not given, but don't you need a break to go your way every now and then? That, more than anything, is why Durant's only ring is linked to his cell phone.
Since that Finals appearance in 2012, injuries stole his chances. Russell Westbrook, his trusty co-star, went down. So did Serge Ibaka. And Durant himself dealt with surgery. No team could overcome that rash of cruelty.
Then, this season, when health finally fell their way, OKC had to plow through two of the top regular-season teams in NBA history: The 67-win Spurs and 73-win Warriors. Is that really fair?
And so you want an answer on the future of this particular free agent? Now?
"I haven't even thought about it," he said. (Gut feeling here: He has thought about it; he's just not ready to talk about it. Big difference.)
More from Durant: "I'm just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I'll think about that stuff, I don't know when, but we just lost an hour ago so I don't know."
Here's what he has decided to do: Breathe first. Discuss his options with his family and his team at Roc Nation, which is Jay-Z's sports agency. Chat with Westbrook, who becomes a free agent next summer. And then reach a decision just before or after July 1. That's the blueprint.
Thunder on Series Loss
Billy Donovan, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook address the media following the Game 7 and series loss to the Warriors.
The very likely scenario has Durant staying for one more season and doing this dance again next summer, when the money pile is larger and Westbrook's intentions are clearer. That's the safe call. He knows what he has in OKC, and he knows it's very good and potentially great.
Ownership is ready to hand him a blank check. There's really no negotiating with a player such as Durant. As for the front office, it's solid. Sam Presti, the general manager, has managed to keep quality parts around Westbrook and Durant even in the wake of losing James Harden four years ago. Durant has a reliable two-headed center in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, and a developing two-guard in Andre Roberson, and a bench that's helpful most of the time.
He has a coach, Billy Donovan, who earned his stripes and the respect of the league this postseason. The way Donovan adjusted after a Game 1 blowout against the Spurs and Gregg Popovich in the second round proved that Presti hired the right coach to replace Scott Brooks.
And finally, Durant has Westbrook. There are times when Westbrook can get reckless and shoot too often, and this was the case Monday when he shot 2-for-7 in the second half and vaporized in the fourth quarter for the second time in as many games. Yet there's no one Durant trusts more than Westbrook, and that could be worth another season in OKC, at least.
"I'm so proud of our team, our players and everybody that takes a part in the Thunder. It was a tremendous effort," said Presti. "I've watched Kevin and Russell put the foundation of the organization together, an organization that was virtually nothing. The fundamental aspect of the Thunder is what those guys are about. They're great competitors, incredible workers, tremendous people and they've got a lot of grit."
It hurts losing. It sucks to lose.
– Kevin Durant
They went the limit in the West finals and there's certainly no shame in losing to the Warriors, even after holding a 3-1 lead. Durant and his team didn't collapse; Golden State was just better. The Warriors also had what Durant so desperately wants: The experience of a champion.
He tried, though. He put a lump in the throats of a sold-out building by dragging OKC back into the game, scoring seven of his 27 points during a dominant stretch of the final few minutes, pumping life back into his deflated team. It was a ballistic moment that reminded everyone how special Durant is, and how he's one of the few human beings who can determine the outcome of games.
Not this one, though. And as championships go, not this year. The Warriors had too many shots that fell from deep in this series, and just enough poise when it counted.
"There's no moral victories," he said. "We're all upset. We wanted to get the chance to be in the Finals, so that hurts. But when you sit down and look at what happened throughout the season, you can be proud of not just the players but everyone in the organization form the top to the bottom. That's just pride, effort, passion, love for the game. Pure love for the game ... we all stuck together and sacrificed for each other. That's what makes this game so special."
For yet another year in which he was an All-Star, made the All-NBA team and game a game away from the NBA Finals, we learned plenty more from Durant. And he learned something himself.
"It hurts losing," he said. "It sucks to lose."
But he was familiar with the level of that pain already, unfortunately. Kevin Durant will not enter next season knowing what it feels like to be a champion, yet again.
He will, however, enter next season as the centerpiece of his team and the main reason why such team will be in the hunt, once again. But which team? As he begins to tackle this issue, this is one challenge in which Durant will have complete control of the outcome.