PHILADELPHIA – Kevin Durant is in a hole that is mostly not of his own doing but he has been around long enough to know that he won’t be forgiven if another season ends without the Oklahoma City Thunder capturing an NBA championship.
Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, doesn’t want or expect to get a pass with his eighth season starting at a decided disadvantage after he suffered a broken right foot in the preseason, Russell Westbrook broke his right wrist on opening night, and the Thunder piled up more devastating injuries than wins in the season’s first six weeks.
“I really don’t give a damn what people got to say,” Durant said. “I really don’t care if they cut me slack or they don’t. I’m not looking for no sympathy from nobody. I’m not looking for no praise from nobody. It’s all good, either way with me. I just look for respect from teammates as a player and as a man. That’s what I want. All that other stuff, I learned how to tune that stuff out and not worry about. I used to think about it. ‘Are they going to cut me slack? Do they love me if I play this way.’ I really don’t give a damn.”
Durant, 26, has developed more of an edge as he’s matured in the league, hardened by the disappointment that has come from losing in the NBA Finals in 2012 and having injuries to Westbrook and Serge Ibaka derail Oklahoma City’s chances of getting back the past two seasons. He also understands that four scoring titles and an MVP trophy won’t shield him from criticism after depositing seven seasons into his career without winning a championship ring.
“You can’t please everybody,” Durant continued. “I can go out there and average 50 points a game, it’s always going to be something people say. If you don’t like me for it, so what?”
This season, the Thunder (7-13) finds itself in what Durant calls “foreign land.” Oklahoma City stumbled to just four wins in the first 15 games without Westbrook and Durant, and the team has a losing record in December for the first time since Durant’s second season in the league.
The Thunder has gone 2-1 since Durant returned last week but will need to complete one of the more remarkable finishes just to reach the playoffs in an improving Western Conference. After that, Oklahoma City would still likely need to win three playoff series as the road team just to make it back to the NBA Finals — something that hasn’t been done since the 1995 Houston Rockets.
“We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” Durant said. “We’re not hanging our head because nobody don’t care about what we’re doing, to be honest. I’m sure a lot of people are happy.”
Westbrook, the fiery all-star point guard, returned one game before Durant, ensuring that the dynamic duo can lead the Thunder through what will be a daunting task. The Dallas Mavericks (16-6) are currently in seventh place in the West — and on pace to win 60 games. When asked if he was angry that the Thunder is in this predicament, Westbrook deadpanned, “I’m always angry.”
Durant had never missed more than seven consecutive games before sitting out the first 17 games this season. Though he wasn’t used to watching games in sport coats, Durant said he never felt the urge to come back before he was ready. “I knew when it was hurting and when it wasn’t. That was easy enough,” Durant said. “It was all about trusting my body, trusting our trainers, and realizing that long-term, I want the best for myself. Rushing it obviously wasn’t going to help, but I wanted to get back as quick as I could.”
As an animated cheerleader and extra assistant coach on the sideline, Durant stayed connected and tried to approach his time on bench with the same intensity that he brought when he played. That passion to encourage and cajole even got Durant in a verbal altercation with Houston’s Dwight Howard while attempting to defend teammate Steven Adams.
“I know one thing about him, he always going to go to war for his team, whether he is playing or not. He still going to be the same KD,” teammate Kendrick Perkins said. “He was great. That was his first time dealing with an injury, too. He kept uplifting spirits. Being positive. But we just happy to have him back. We’d rather have this Kevin and not the injured Kevin.”
Denied a preseason to regain his rhythm, Durant is adhering to a 30-minute playing time restriction until he gets his conditioning back. He gets annoyed by questions about his health and made no excuses after being held to just 10 points – his lowest total since April 2009 – in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Two days later, Durant scored 28 points and made the decisive three-pointer in a 96-94 win over the Detroit Pistons.
“I think that’s a myth as far as turning it on,” Durant said. “We know that every game is important, no matter what our record would’ve been. We got to always keep our button on. We can’t look past games, we can’t worry about where we’ll be at the all-star break. We got to step on the gas.”
Before Durant suffered that rare injury, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the scrutiny that seems to come with delayed championship dreams. “It’s funny. Seems like the greater you are as a player, the more people want to pull you down,” Popovich said. “LeBron [James] got the same stuff. Kevin is going through the same thing now that LeBron did for a few years. But he’s got big-time character, he’s got a thick enough skin and he’s smart enough to know, compete and play the game and good things happen.”
Oklahoma City entered training camp as a team seemingly poised for a title breakthrough. James broke up with Miami and got back with his first love and San Antonio got a year older after making it through a six-game series with the Thunder last postseason. With Durant under contract with Oklahoma City through 2016, the pressure for the organization to win a title has been magnified, with each wasted opportunity sure to increase speculation about his future.
“Everybody wants to tell you when your window is closing. Everybody want to tell when they think you can win a championship or ‘you will never win.’ It’s not about the outside noise,” Durant said. “We feel as though, in this organization, we can compete every year. Injuries have hit us, but it’s a part of the game, and we’re going to push through that. But when you start listening to people who aren’t experts of the game of basketball, who have never been inside a huddle … you can’t listen to that stuff. Even if they tell you you’re a great player or it’s your turn to win. We’re not going to worry about windows here.”