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Paul Flannery | March 20, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Kevin Durant, calm in the eye of the storm

Kevin Durant, calm in the eye of the storm

BOSTON -- The Oklahoma City Thunder seem unbothered by things on the court these days. That’s a pretty good place to be, considering the eyes of the entire sport have been watching them for any signs of fissures or tension in what has to be considered as the most important season in their history.

Kevin Durant will be a free agent this summer and he has been the Thunder’s foundation for as long as the franchise has existed in Oklahoma City. Durant brought instant credibility to a team that was a blank slate when it moved from Seattle, leading the Thunder to a Finals appearance and winning a Most Valuable Player award. Yet, deep postseason runs have mixed with crushing disappointment and time is no longer a variable they can control.

Losing Durant would be devastating but into that pressure-filled environment, real tragedy has been a horrible constant. Ingrid Williams, the beloved wife of assistant coach Monty Williams, was killed in a car accident and the coach has taken a leave of absence for the rest of the season to be with his family. In early March, part owner Aubrey McClendon crashed into a bridge a day after he was indicted on federal charges of conspiring to rig bids for oil and natural gas leases. A few days later, the brother of Dion Waiters was shot and killed in Philly.

There’s no tactful way to transition from this awful series of events into a story of a basketball team at the crossroads, but what we are left with is a team trying to make sense of itself in terms both real and athletic. For the former there is grief. For the latter they have adopted a pragmatic approach and it’s on those terms that we must reckon with OKC’s moment of truth.

Take their recent stretch of play following the All-Star game when OKC lost eight of its first dozen games out of the break. While a couple of those losses signalled alarm bells, the team seemed less perturbed about it than the screaming WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE THUNDER headlines made it seem.

"Stay healthy for one and continue to keep growing. I like where we are," Durant said on Wednesday before taking on the Celtics. "I like the groove we’re in on both ends of the floor. We can’t lose as much as we lost after the All-Star break. We understand that, but adversity is good. You always learn about yourself through adversity. We’ll stay the course, build our habits and we’ll be fine when the time comes."

Staying healthy and being fine when the time comes have been significant issues in recent years. Of all the Thunder teams with Durant and Russell Westbrook, the best might have been the 2012-13 squad that won 60 games and had the best point-differential in the league. Coming off their first Finals appearance, the Thunder seemed inevitable. Then fate -- and Houston’s Pat Beverley -- collided with Westbrook’s knee.

Last year, of course, they didn’t even make the playoffs after Durant missed most of the regular season following foot surgery. More than any other factor, even more than the James Harden trade, those injuries have derailed their hopes. The Harden trade presents one of those tantalizing what-ifs, but blaming it for everything that’s happened since is an oversimplification of events.

When they have been healthy, the Thunder have been generally fine. They reached the conference finals two years ago before losing to the eventual champion Spurs in six games. There again, a key injury played a factor as they were without Serge Ibaka for the first two games of that series, which both went to San Antonio in blowouts.

Even that season was a relative disappointment. Conference finals are the baseline expectation for this team, which is a hell of a thing but also not out of bounds considering the talent on hand. One truly needs to see them in person to appreciate just how physically imposing and unguardable Westbrook and Durant are together. Their presence alone makes OKC a contender, regardless of positioning or matchups.

The good news is that OKC is healthy. Durant has missed only a handful of games while Westbrook and Ibaka had made every start until Ibaka sat out Friday’s game with Philly for planned rest. Their supporting cast is deeper and also much younger than the veteran-laden teams of the past. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson and Waiters are all 24 years old or younger and rookie Cam Payne has become a valuable contributor. Their inexperience may show at times, but younger, fresher legs will be needed if they are going to run through the Western Conference gauntlet.

There are sound reasons for their lack of panic coming out of that sluggish stretch. For one thing, it appears to be over. OKC’s defense has ratcheted up over the last half-dozen games or so and they recorded comfortable wins over the Blazers, Celtics and 76ers before eking out another victory in Indiana on the end of a back-to-back. Sure, that home loss to Minnesota was unacceptable and the Thunder’s fourth-quarter execution remains maddening on occasion, but they prefer to take the long view on things.

"I think this has been healthy for our team," first-year coach Billy Donovan said. "It’s forced us to get better to improve. It’s forced us to look at ourselves in areas that we got to improve and it’s forced us to make a commitment in those areas to really make significant growth."

Still, there’s a nagging question: What if it’s just not good enough? OKC is on track to win about 55 games, which is a strong season in any other context. The problem is that Golden State and San Antonio are miles ahead in the standings and jockeying amongst themselves to record two of the best regular seasons of all time. Compared to those juggernauts, the Thunder no longer seem so dominant.

And that gets into the real issue here, which is time. What once felt eternal now feels finite. Not only is Durant a pending free agent, but Westbrook has one more year left on his deal after this season. It’s entirely possible that they will continue on in this vein for years to come. Both are still young and widely regarded as two of the top-5 players in the world. No other plausible scenario, with the obvious exception of the Golden State nuclear option, offers that kind of foundation for Durant to pursue championships.

If KD really wants a clean break, he will have his choice of any destination he desires. His hometown Wizards have been eying July 1 for years. The Lakers still play in Los Angeles and the Celtics would love to make a serious run, as would a half-dozen other teams. Such is life in this kind of bubble that a couple of innocuous comments about enjoying the city of Boston can cause ripples of excitement surging through a fanbase.

(For the record, Durant also offered this about the Celtics: "I’ve been watching this team a lot. They’re scrappy, they play hard, they love their coach, they love their system and especially in this building they play with a lot of energy." Start up the Duck Boats!)

Throughout the season, Durant has admirably kept the free agent wolves at bay. His circle has been both tight and tight-lipped. A few flare-ups here or there notwithstanding, there has been very little indication that KD is dreaming of an escape or that he is unhappy with his current situation. Idle speculation thrives in an information vacuum and fair or not, there will always be the thought in the backs of people’s minds that the KD-Russ partnership has run its course in OKC.

"We like playing with each other," Durant told Yahoo’s Chris Mannix. "We like hanging around with each other. Sometimes it just comes down to actually basketball. It’s Xs and Os sometimes why you lose a game. It’s not leadership issues or camaraderie issues, sometimes teams just play better basketball than you."

Even with all their talent that possibility -- that sometimes teams just play better -- is the biggest obstacle standing in their way. It’s hard not to notice that OKC is a combined 1-6 against the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers, or that the Clippers have lingered close behind in the loss column. Their run may continue beyond this season. That may even be the most likely scenario. In the present, however, the Thunder are just another contender hoping that everything comes together and time is no longer a luxury.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Winning or losing in the NBA is a zero-sum game as the Thunder know all too well. Throughout its history, the league is full of great players and teams that never won championships. While reputations and legacies are forged instantaneously in hothouse Finals environment, with the perspective of time comes an appreciation for the accomplishments of the runner-ups. Here are a few who never quite made it.

UTAH: The John Stockton/Karl Malone Jazz represent one end of the two-star, no-rings dynamic. While the Jazz never did win a championship, the duo put Utah on the NBA map and embarked on one of the more consistent runs the league has ever known. Through almost two decades together, the Jazz made the playoffs every year, reaching the conference championship round five times and advancing to the Finals twice where they lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. There’s disappointment in not winning it all, but there’s also a deep appreciation for their longevity.

SEATTLE: Utah’s starstruck contemporaries in the ‘90s were like a bizarro version: wild and unpredictable where Utah was steady and consistent, and starring their own updated version of Stockton/Malone with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. What they lack in championship hardware they make up for in a romanticized remembrance of their past. Revered for their high-flying act on the court and scrutinized for the high-wire balancing of egos off it, the Sonics have endured as a beautifully damaged morality play for the ages.

PORTLAND: The late ‘80s and early ‘90s Blazers had the misfortune of running into the Bad Boy Pistons and Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals, but they were a consistent threat in a conference that was dominated by the Lakers. The Finals’ losses linger, particularly in 1990 when they took a 1-1 split back to Portland and lost three straight at home to Detroit. The loss to the Bulls two years later marked the end of their run as contenders and Clyde Drexler had to go home to Houston to get his ring. Those Blazer teams have to settle for being largely underrated for their time.

CLEVELAND: The early LeBron years were good ones for the Cavs. They made the Finals unexpectedly in 2007, gave the eventual champion Celtics their toughest test in 2008 and cruised into the conference finals in 2009 as the undisputed favorites. That’s when everything unraveled and things got complicated. Their inevitable championship trajectory soon gave way to frustration and well, we know the rest. LeBron went to Miami to win his titles, beating OKC in 2012. The Decision is the personification of OKC’s greatest fear, minus the homecoming.

DALLAS: And here is the redemption story. The 2007 Mavs won 67 games and had the league’s MVP in Dirk Nowitzki when they ran headlong into the We Believe Warriors. It was the worst possible matchup and it happened in the first round, denying Dallas a satisfying conclusion to a process that had been almost a decade in the making. It took another four years and a host of new players but Dirk finally got his title with the franchise that drafted him. Proof that patience can play off in the long run with a great player.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Break up the Knicks

Tom Ziller gives voice to something we’ve all been thinking: It’s time for the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony to go their separate ways.

The sighs of March

Me and Ziller are stuck in the middle of March with those end-of-the-season blues, so rather than pick one topic for F+Z we hit a half-dozen. It all comes back to the Kings anyway.

Kings of nothing

Speaking of the Kings, over at Sactown Royalty Akis Yerocostas has a deep, painful dive into everything that’s gone wrong with Sacramento. It’s a lot.

Point Giannis

Yaron Weitzman digs into the inevitable evolution of Giannis Antetokounmpo into a point guardish playmaking wing for the Bucks.

Smallball in Big D

Tim Cato has some interesting observations about Rick Carlisle’s evolving rotations over at Mavs Moneyball. Poor, Zaza.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"You know that that guy is here. He's incredible. He's different. He's something we've never seen. It's crazy to me, like just me being the biggest Michael Jordan fan, to see somebody come around like this. I have my idea of me being incredible, you know what I mean? But this dude right here, like it's different. It's a whole different monster, as far as his handle and the way he shoots? C'mon. You know you ain't never seen nothing like this." -- Allen Iverson on Steph Curry.

Reaction: See, retired legends of the game? It’s not that hard.

"He wants the greatness badly. He doesn't give a damn about the stardom." -- Gregg Popovich on Kawhi Leonard.

Reaction: That’s an interesting distinction that Pop raises in Lee Jenkins’ insightful Leonard profile. To be a great player in the NBA comes with stardom attached. It’s part of the deal and dealing with the demands is part of the package that all great players go through. Leonard seems immune to the call of fame.

"In the back of my mind, I always thought about how I went out, being carted off of the Garden on that stretcher. So eventually it was just like: ‘Man, I have to say my peace. I have to go and push myself.’ And that’s what led me here. I’m a believer in starting from the bottom." -- Baron Davis, who is making a comeback in the D-League.

Reaction: Even if he never makes it back to the league, at least Davis has the satisfaction of getting back on the court.

"I guess I have all the power. If I really wanted to get out of this situation I could have waived that no-trade clause. But I’ve stuck with it and I’m still sticking with it. I don’t know, maybe my loyalty has come back to bite me in the ass. As of right now, I am sticking to it." -- Carmelo Anthony to Marc Spears.

Reaction: It’s easy to say that it’s time to move on, but Melo does have the right to control his fate and that’s not something he should give away lightly. (Also congrats to Spears on his new gig with The Undefeated.)

"This is the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth time we had a meeting. Talking shouldn't be the one thing we do." -- Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas after yet another team meeting.

Reaction: The Rockets season in a nutshell: third in the Southwest Division, seventh in the Western Conference, first in team meetings.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

It’s been a while since we had Steph so here’s Steph being Steph.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.