The embrace was a symbolic gesture that represented so much more than a simple passing of the torch from a four-time NBA champion to a kid who might one day establish his own dynasty.
After he dribbled out the closing seconds of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s series-clinching Game 6 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, Kevin Durant lifted his hand and gave that quintessential, Michael-Jordan-like celebratory fist-pump. Tim Duncan tracked down Durant, whispered some encouraging words into his ear and let Durant go, understanding that his last-best shot an NBA championship had been snatched away by an unassuming but lethal superstar cut from a similar cloth.
“He told me congrats and good luck. I respect Tim Duncan and the whole organization so much,” Durant said after scoring 34 points to lead the Thunder into the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise bolted Seattle four years ago. “They do things the right way. They play the game the right way. They’re a family.”
Durant wants to establish a similar situation in Oklahoma City. And, the reason that the Thunder has been able to copy the Spurs’ model for small-market success so well was because it has a general manager in Sam Presti who learned the San Antonio way during an earlier apprenticeship and a star in Durant who – like Duncan – isn’t attracted to the bright and shiny things that a bigger market theoretically can provide.
Durant certainly is more comfortable with his stardom than Duncan. He doesn’t shun the attention or marketing opportunities that come with his immense fame, but he won’t let the celebrity trappings deter his focus from the game that makes it all possible.
He’s far from dull and his maturity has started to come through this season as he ditched the backpack to take on the look of a boy at the prom – boutonnière on his jacket lapel to boot. He’s growing up and moving closer to a coronation that he had to earn through hard times. On a team that started 3-29 just three years ago, Durant has had to pay a surprising amount of dues to supposedly rise so swiftly.
A three-time scoring champion who has already mentioned an explicit desire to go down as the best player the District has ever produced, Durant does it all with a steely demeanor, a quiet determination and a sniper’s accuracy on his jumper. He wants to win and be an all-time great – and he has no desire to wait. Duncan was the same at a similar stage in his career.
At 23, Duncan beat Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace and other players in his age group to win an NBA championship during a lockout-shortened season in 1999. And at 23, Durant is four more victories away from surpassing other ’80s babies – such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose – in leading his team to a championship in another lockout-shortened season.
Duncan won the first of four titles as a youngster who methodically obliterated the competition with boring bank shots and carried a veteran-laden team with a deferring former league MVP at his side in David Robinson (another great product of the Washington metro area). Durant is at the forefront of a super-duper young team that is also poised to win multiple championships if it can only keep all of the pieces together.
That is a challenge for later. For now, Durant has to first get one, but Oklahoma City has already completed an impressive run that has seen it knock off the only three teams to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals in the past 13 years – Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Duncan and San Antonio.
The Thunder overcame a Spurs team that had won 20 games in a row, and an 18-point deficit in Game 6, and now anxiously awaits the winner of Boston and Miami, which would give Durant te chance to take out the Celtics’ storied tradition or the superstar trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Duncan’s hug with Durant on Thursday was reminiscent of another exchange in Cleveland in 2007, when the Spurs had completed a four-game sweep of the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and Duncan grabbed James and told him that he would rule the league one day.
The past five years, the NBA has been waiting for James to grasp the moment, to take a hold of what supposedly belongs to him. James has won three most valuable player awards since then, but also failed in his last trip to the NBA Finals.
In his fifth year, Durant appears to be on a similar trajectory to his contemporaries. Wade won a championship in his third season, benefiting from the presence of a three-time champion in O’Neal. James took advantage of a weakened East to reach the Finals in his fourth season. Dwight Howard helped Orlando fully get over the Shaq-Penny era by taking the Magic to the Finals in his fifth season.
Durant’s rise feels more like he’s jumping the line or bum-rushing the stage. He wasn’t expected to get here this quickly. The Thunder was supposed to take a few more lumps, enjoy eating at the kid’s table and wait a little while longer as the grown-ups sorted out who would get the rings. But Durant isn’t having it that way.
His impatience was captured late in the game, when Durant threw a bounce pass right around Duncan to Kendrick Perkins for a dunk that clinched the 107-99 victory. Durant raised his hands above his head and after a foul was called with 14.6 seconds remaining, he rushed to the courtside seats where his mother, Wanda Pratt, and his brother, Tony, were waiting to hug him. The game wasn’t over, but the celebration had just begun.
“I never want to take those moments for granted,” Durant said. “I know it’s just one step closer to our dreams, but it felt good.”
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