OKLAHOMA CITY — When Kevin Durant finally made it out to greet his family and friends waiting courtside after the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final game of the season late Saturday night, the league’s MVP was more than an hour removed from embracing Tim Duncan and offering congratulations for the San Antonio Spurs advancing to the NBA Finals for the sixth time.
His season ended earlier than he had hoped, but Durant was loose, like the gold chain with the symbols “E$” — short for easy money — dangling from his neck. And before anyone could offer words of encouragement, Durant shrugged and made it clear that he was fine as he made it down a row of handshakes and hugs.
“I’m at peace with myself,” Durant said after the Thunder’s 112-107 loss. “I left every inch of me out there. All year. For my city, for my team. I can live with the results. Of course, I want to win more than anything.
“Losing is devastating, no matter where it’s at. First round or Finals. It all hurts. You never want to take this stuff for granted. It hurts now. But hopefully, I can look back on it and laugh.”
Durant has gained perspective in his seven seasons, especially after surviving a grueling campaign in which he “felt like everything was being thrown at me” and still emerged as the MVP for the first time. A championship remains elusive, but Durant believes that the disappointments will give him more appreciation if it ever comes.
His season ended with a heartbreaking defeat, but to him, it was hardly a failure because of the ways in which he grew as a man and a basketball player. He no longer speaks about Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in deferential terms. Durant sees himself in that class after averaging a career-high 32 points, winning his fourth scoring title and carrying the Thunder to the league’s second-best record despite being without all-star teammate Russell Westbrook for nearly half the season.
“Individually, I feel I’m as good as those guys,” Durant said of James and Bryant. “I’m not saying that in an arrogant, cocky way at all, but I feel I can compete with those guys any given night and I’ve worked tirelessly to be able to say that. They’re champions, and I want to be a part of that group. I got a long ways to go.”
The Maurice Podoloff trophy put Durant into elite company, since every retired MVP winner has eventually been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But since 2003, Duncan and James are the only MVPs to win the Finals and the award in the same season.
Durant now embraces his status as one of the best players in the NBA, as well as the responsibility and scrutiny that comes when those talents don’t yield titles.
“That’s fine with me, the criticism that comes with it,” Durant said. “I understand that when you lose, what happens, what people say. But I was built for this. I was made for this. God got my back, and I can take anything. Throw whatever you want at me. Say whatever you want. I can take it. I know who really loves me. I know I love this game and I know the work that I put in.”
Durant was unable to follow up the most efficient regular season of his career with a memorable postseason. The forward had difficulty with the rough, physical play of Memphis guard Tony Allen in the first round and was called “Mr. Unreliable” in a headline by the Oklahoman. Durant then ransacked the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round. But he failed to take control in any game against San Antonio, which switched its best perimeter defender, Kawhi Leonard, over to Westbrook midway through the series. In overtime of the Game 6 finale, Durant went scoreless while Duncan finished off the Thunder with seven points in the extra period.
“It’s obviously a team game, and we all got to do it together. I know that,” Durant said. “I know we all have to be better and I think that I have to come back and be a better player, be a better leader.”
Durant will be a free agent in 2016, when his hometown Washington Wizards will be among the teams hoping to lure him away from the only organization that he has known. While meeting with reporters on Sunday, Durant acknowledged that “time is always moving forward” but denied that the Thunder’s championship window had closed — or was closing.
“You look at that team we played, easily could have said that about them plenty of times. They still here, still standing, still pushing forward for championships every year,” Durant said. “Easy to say that after a loss, of course. We’ve been together for so long but we got hope that we can get to the top of that mountain one day. Who knows when it will be? But right now, stay positive with it, keep moving forward.”
Durant added, “I think our future is bright.”
When the Thunder reached the NBA Finals in 2012, Durant seemed poised to duel with James for championships for the foreseeable future. But Durant spoke then about the need for urgency, because youth and talent doesn’t mean titles are destined to come. The past two seasons have crystallized that sentiment.
“It’s nothing promised. We’ve seen our team change since then. Anything could happen,” Durant said, without having to mention the James Harden trade that created a potential contender in Houston.
“It’s hard to win a championship,” said Thunder Coach Scott Brooks, who won a title as a player with the Rockets in 1994. “I played with a lot of great players that never won, and it’s somewhat unfair because they’re labeled as not champion, and I’m labeled as a champion. And I didn’t really do much to earn that other than cheer.”
Durant has stated that he doesn’t want his legacy to defined by whether or not he wins a ring, but his desire for one grows each time he comes up short.
“It would mean the world. It’s the only thing I’m worried about at this point,” he said. “That’s why I work hard as I can. None of these fans are in the gym with me, but that’s who I do it for. People don’t see how we feel when we go home after games, emotionally, physically. But we do it for them, and I’ll lay my body on the line for these fans here and my teammates and this whole organization to win a championship. That’s my goal. I’m going to keep fighting until I get it.”