OAKLAND, Calif. — Ever since Kevin Durant made the decision to leave the only franchise he had ever played for in his nine-year NBA career to join the Golden State Warriors this summer, he had the first game he would play against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the back of his mind.
Some people — like Durant’s former running mate, Russell Westbrook — might be able to block out the moment. But Durant isn’t built that way. And, for the opening nine minutes of Thursday’s game here between the two teams, he played that way, apparently trying to figure out how he should approach the game, just like he seemed to be trying to figure out how to greet his former teammates before it.
But then Jerami Grant — a third-year forward who only arrived in Oklahoma City himself 48 hours ago via trade — threw down a dunk on Durant with three minutes to go in the first quarter. After landing, Grant bumped chests with the superstar and stared him down.
“That’s not a good idea,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr would say later.
No, it was not.
The previously sleeping superstar suddenly woke up. And once he did, his former team didn’t have a chance.
“When you get dunked on like that, you want to come back and try to ignite your team,” Durant said. “It definitely sparked something in me.”
What it sparked was an avalanche of points from Durant, turning what once was a 10-point Thunder lead into a 25-point Warriors advantage by halftime in what eventually became a 122-96 victory for the Warriors over the Thunder in front of a sellout crowd here at Oracle Arena. It was the kind of flurry multiple people around the Thunder later said they were used to seeing time and again over the past nine years he was with the franchise.
The difference this time was that Durant was doing it to them.
He was sublime in doing so, shaking off the slow start to finish the game with 39 points — 36 of which came after Grant’s dunk — that came in a variety of ways: bombs from well behind the three-point arc, silky smooth turnaround jumpers in the post and several ferocious dunks. Along the way, the Warriors morphed into what everyone thought they would be when Durant chose to sign with them: a terrifying scoring machine that can leave opposing defenses helpless.
“It was definitely fun,” said Stephen Curry, who had 21 points. “We knew how much it meant for him to just get out there and play with all the noise around the game.”
The “noise” had been building for four months, ever since Durant announced his decision to sign with the Warriors in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune on the Fourth of July. Over the past several weeks, the noise grew to a crescendo as Durant and Westbrook took turns making waves by saying or participating in things that were taken as shots at one side or the other, or by responding to them.
After Durant went out of his way to try and downplay the assumed animus between himself in separate interviews with The Washington Post and other outlets earlier this week, Westbrook went out of his way to poke fun at his former teammate when he strolled into the arena with a bright orange pinny that had the words “Official Photographer” on them.
It’s no coincidence that photography is a favorite hobby of Durant’s. Westbrook attempted to convince everyone that wasn’t the case before the game.
“I got that actually when I was in … Madrid,” Westbrook said. “I saw the photographers walking around with the thing on. I asked the young lady can she give me one, because I thought it was a great fashion idea for an upcoming collection. So, I just thought it would be something I could wear. I thought it was pretty cool.”
As the game wore on and the score got more lopsided, the pinny became the latest internet meme, with people putting all sorts of different words and images on it to mock Westbrook as the Thunder fell farther and farther behind.
The former teammates, meanwhile, spent the 48 minutes occupying the same space but, for the most part, staying apart. Westbrook and Durant each had one highlight block on the other, but that was the extent of their interactions.
At no point did they have a chance to talk to one another, either before or during the game itself. The one time Durant and Westbrook were in proximity to one another was when they attended chapel before the game.
Westbrook, though, said there wasn’t a conversation happening there.
“Nah, I don’t talk to anybody at chapel,” he said. “I listen to the word and I get back to the locker room.”
Durant and Westbrook may not have talked, but Durant did plenty of talking to other members of the Thunder. Grant, understandably, was the first object of Durant’s ire in the wake of the dunk, and his theatrics afterward. After Durant scored two quick buckets on the following two possessions, he made a layup while being fouled by Grant, and proceeded to talk trash to Grant for the next 30 seconds or so until he shot the ensuing free throw.
No one had a rougher night, however, than Thunder backup center Enes Kanter. In three first-half minutes, Kanter missed his only shot and threw a pass a mile out of bounds after encountering a perfectly timed double team in the post. Oklahoma was outscored by 11 points with him on the floor.
That didn’t stop Kanter from getting into a conversation with Durant during the game while sitting on the bench. It appeared Durant wasn’t at all happy during the back-and-forth, which was captured by the TNT broadcast, with speculation quickly circulating that it might have something to do with Kanter’s critical tweets about Durant in the wake of his decision to leave Oklahoma City in July.
Durant’s cold-blooded answer postgame seemed to indicate that was true.
“He was talking to me, but how many minutes did he play?” Durant asked.
Then he answered his own question.
“Three minutes,” Durant said. “I’m trying to focus on whatever’s on the court, you know? You’re trying to talk to me from the sidelines. But I’m sure he’s gonna put something on Twitter tonight.”
When Kanter eventually talked to the media after the game, he wasn’t interested in continuing his conversation with Durant into the future.
“It’s just part of the game,” Kanter said, adding he wasn’t going to be doing any tweeting after the game — though it turned out he wasn’t quite telling the truth about that, either. “I’m just gonna leave it there and keep going forward.”
That was also Durant’s message after the game, albeit for very different reasons. Over the past few months, the slow buildup to this first showdown between the superstar and his former team hung over Durant.
Durant still has one more hill to climb before he can fully put this behind him — his first trip back to Oklahoma City on Feb. 11 — but tried his best to Thursday’s game to put the talk about the Thunder behind him for good.
“I don’t want to say that any part was strange,” Durant said. “I’ve moved on. I’m part of the Golden State Warriors. I’m excited to be part of this team. What I did those last eight years was special, and something I’m never going to forget, but I’m trying to look forward.
“I just try to separate those emotions and feelings, and also try to do my job.”
In the hours leading up to the start of the game, and throughout the opening minutes of the game itself, Durant was clearly trying to find a way to do just that. Then came Grant’s dunk, and the stare that went with it.
From there, instincts took over. And so did Durant.