Du­rant is a ‘man on a mis­sion’

For­mer Thun­der star won’t let crit­ics spoil his quest to win NBA ti­tle with War­riors.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Ta­nia Gan­guli ta­nia.gan­guli@la­times.com

OAK­LAND — At 7:44 p.m. on Fri­day, Kevin Du­rant saun­tered onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena wear­ing white and gold Beats head­phones that drowned out the sound of cheers from a col­lec­tion of Golden State War­riors fans nearby and boos em­a­nat­ing from through­out the build­ing. He looked around and took it in for sev­eral min­utes, sing­ing along to the mu­sic, be­fore be­gin­ning his warmup rou­tine.

He took a few shots with a reg­u­lar arc, then be­gan his reg­u­lar rou­tine of shoot­ing high-arch­ing shots he’d never shoot in a game, grin­ning when he fi­nally got one to fall through the net.

Ev­ery cam­era, ev­ery cell phone, the eyes of ev­ery per­son stand­ing on the edges of the court fol­lowed Du­rant as he did it, know­ing that if the War­riors win the NBA Fi­nals, it will be be­cause of that man.

“Man on a mis­sion,” War­riors for­ward Dray­mond Green said.

Even be­fore the se­ries be­gan, it was about Du­rant, the for­mer MVP the War­riors added in or­der to top­ple the de­fend­ing cham­pion Cleve­land Cava­liers. The move came with crit­i­cism both for the War­riors and for Du­rant him­self, ac­cused of join­ing the team that beat him the year be­fore. But once it started, Du­rant took over.

“He sees it,” War­riors guard Shaun Liv­ingston said. “He sees the fin­ish line. He sees the ul­ti­mate goal and he hasn’t got­ten there yet. That’s what it’s about.”

He’s scored more than 30 points in ev­ery game of the Fi­nals, and joins Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jor­dan as the only play­ers to score 25 or more points in their first nine Fi­nals games. His game-win­ning three-pointer in the fi­nal minute of Game 3 gave the War­riors a 3-0 lead. And he is the rea­son why Game 5 on Mon­day feels so dif­fer­ent from Game 5 last year, which be­gan the War­riors’ de­scent.

“I'm just try­ing to be the best me I can be,” Du­rant said. “That’s the only pres­sure I worry about.

“If I don’t play up to my stan­dards, then that’s what — that’s when I get up­set. I have bad games, but it’s just a mat­ter of me just try­ing to be the best me I can be, go out there and work ex­tremely hard on my game and try to show­case it.”

His jour­ney here started with what hap­pened a year ago in this very se­ries.

Du­rant didn’t ac­tu­ally watch that se­ries. He stopped watch­ing the Fi­nals ever since he started play­ing on con­tend­ing teams.

He didn’t see the War­riors build a 3-1 lead over the Cava­liers, only to have it dis­ap­pear, start­ing with Game 5 in Oak­land. He didn’t watch the War­riors strug­gle with Green sus­pended. He didn’t see the Cava­liers do some­thing that had never been done be­fore, against a War­riors team that knew al­most in­stantly they needed Du­rant.

Some­time soon af­ter that loss, Green called Du­rant — Green says it was im­me­di­ately af­ter the game, while Du­rant says it wasn’t — and the two old friends talked about the se­ries.

“I had built a pretty good re­la­tion­ship with him over the course of the years,” Green said. “We would ex­change texts dur­ing the sea­son and just, ‘Hey, man, how you do­ing?’ Just reg­u­lar con­ver­sa­tions just like any­one would have over the course, you know, you get to know peo­ple bet­ter and bet­ter.

“Now when we started play­ing each other in the con­fer­ence fi­nals ev­ery­thing kind of came to a halt, but that’s how it should be.”

Du­rant made the same kind of de­ci­sion LeBron James did, six years later. He left the team that drafted him (the Ok­la­homa City Thun­der) to chase a cham­pi­onship, to in­stantly join a ti­tle con­tender. But it was more than the War­riors’ win­ning that at­tracted him.

“I think he saw some­thing that he could re­ally be a big part of,” Liv­ingston said. “It’s not just about him. I think he un­der­stands in his 10 years in the NBA, the best team wins. Not al­ways the best play­ers. See­ing that we pro­mote team basketball, we have great play­ers but we all play to­gether, and we play the right way. I think that’s en­tic­ing for him as a basketball player.”

Aim­ing to fit in, not to big­foot his way around his new team, Du­rant did so seam­lessly.

“There was no judg­ment when he came here,” his mother, Wanda, said. “They opened his arms to him and they wel­comed him. When you’re in a place that wants you and a place where you want to be, you flour­ish.”

There wasn’t judg­ment from in­side the War­riors bub­ble, but there was plenty of it out­side it.

Some crit­i­cized Du­rant’s de­ci­sion, sim­i­lar to how James was crit­i­cized. In­ten­si­fy­ing the scru­tiny was the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” feel to the de­ci­sion, as Du­rant signed with the team that had de­feated his Thun­der in a seven-game con­fer­ence fi­nals se­ries just weeks be­fore. In Ok­la­homa City, the anger be­came per­sonal. The vit­riol di­rected at him upon his re­turn there shocked many close to him.

“That was quite hurt­ful,” Wanda said af­ter Game 4 in Cleve­land. “I un­der­stood that they were dis­ap­pointed that he left and I could take a lit­tle of the rhetoric, but they — I still get it. I could show you some stuff on my phone now and it’s just down­right dis­gust­ing. It’s just de­plorable, the things peo­ple have said about him, to me. It’s down­right dis­re­spect­ful. No mat­ter how well he does. The great first three games, they did it. Tonight they did it.”

On Twit­ter, one per­son told her he hopes Kevin dies. An­other per­son ad­dressed her as ugly when ask­ing the ques­tion. Many called him a coward.

Through all the noise, Du­rant’s con­cen­tra­tion in­ten­si­fied as the play­offs went on, and espe­cially dur­ing the course of the Fi­nals. His shoot­ing reg­i­men length­ened. He seemed more fo­cused.

Through­out the Fi­nals, he showed a will­ing­ness to step for­ward in a way he hasn’t at other points in his ca­reer. The War­riors suc­ceed be­cause of their egal­i­tar­ian phi­los­o­phy, but in the Fi­nals, Du­rant has been their floor gen­eral.

“He’s just fo­cused and locked in at the task at hand,” Green said.

And while that in­ten­sity shows it­self in his prepa­ra­tion, it all means that on the court, dur­ing games, he just fol­lows his in­stincts.

It’s been years since Wanda Du­rant has seen her son play this way, so free and un­bur­dened. Not since his one sea­son in col­lege, and be­fore that back to when he was a lit­tle boy just start­ing to learn the game of basketball.

“It’s been a dream come true,” she said. “This has been his life. This has been what he was work­ing for ever since he was 7 years old. To see him on this big stage is re­ally good but ul­ti­mately he’s play­ing free. His game is just el­e­vated be­cause he’s happy here. That’s what I see.”

That he’s do­ing it on the NBA Fi­nals stage only adds to her joy.

Gre­gory Shamus Getty Im­ages

THE WAR­RIORS’ Kevin Du­rant has scored more than 30 points in ev­ery game of this year’s NBA Fi­nals. “I’m just try­ing to be the best me I can be,” Du­rant said. “That’s the only pres­sure I worry about. If I don’t play up to my stan­dards, then that’s ... when I get up­set.”

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