OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant knew his life and basketball career were changing forever from the moment he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer to join the Golden State Warriors. By deciding to join a team that had already won a championship with its existing core, and followed that up by winning a record 73 games last season before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games in the NBA Finals, Durant’s every move would be scrutinized and debated, his successes muted and his setbacks endlessly analyzed.
But even with all of the drama that came with Durant’s decision, the results have been impressive. Golden State led the league with 67 wins, has steamrollered through the Western Conference playoffs with a pristine 12-0 record, and now is facing a third straight showdown with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals beginning at Oracle Arena on Thursday night.
This is the kind of success Durant hoped for when he agreed to come to the Warriors. And, in the wake of making it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012 (his only other trip to the NBA’s summit), he took a moment this week to reflect on his first year by the Bay.
“I had no expectations,” Durant said after a recent practice at the team’s facility. “I was coming in and taking it day by day, and seeing how I can impact my teammates and impact the game every single night and help us win.
“Everything kind of worked together from that aspect. I didn’t come in thinking, ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I have to do that.’ I just tried to come out here and learn and be the best teammate I can be, and everything would fall in line after that.”
If there is any one thing that has defined this Warriors season, it is how seamlessly everything has fallen into place. The Warriors did lose Durant for several weeks because of the knee injury he suffered in Washington on Feb. 29, but outside of that there have been virtually no issues integrating one of the league’s dominant players and personalities into a team that had already had so much success.
This isn’t how these marriages usually work. Just think back to the first season for the Miami Heat with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or the tumultuous opening season the Cavaliers had when James returned to Cleveland three years ago. There is typically a maturation process to blend a group of individuals into a team — even when some of those individuals had already been part of the team previously.
Count Warriors General Manager Bob Myers as one of those who thought the process would include more growing pains.
“I’ve been surprised at how the team has become a team,” Myers said. “I’m a believer that it takes a long time to assimilate.
“I’ve been surprised they’ve all been willing and open to evolve, and, in some scenarios, get less individually to get more from a team standpoint. Ego can be a detractor sometimes to success, and they’ve all kind of pushed that aside.”
Winning can cure plenty of angst. But there’s also little doubt that the meeting all of the principals had last July in the Hamptons went a long way to making the transition so seamless. It was there, where Durant was conducting his free agent meetings — with Durant and his camp on one side of the table and the Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the other — that the chemistry experiment began.
Everyone sitting there knew that, if this was going to work, everyone involved would have to give back a little bit. And while there have been small tugs at the fabric of that partnership over the past few months — most notably after the Warriors lost in Cleveland on Christmas, and Curry made clear (in the most tame way possible) that he wasn’t happy with his current role, which led to positive changes in the offense — for the most part the Warriors have found success without much public drama.
“Obviously, we love having here as a person,” Warriors interim coach Mike Brown said. “And as a player, he fits in with the group. He has the type of personality that well with the rest of the guys.
“This is a group that is more than willing to sacrifice their own individuality for the betterment of the group and is the same way. There have been games where has gone out and maybe had 14 points, and he could’ve scored 30.
“So to have that type of person fit in with who he is and how big he is, just makes this machine continue to go smoothly without any hiccups.”
The result has been a group that, in the year where many thought there would be trouble figuring out how to play together, has rolled, earning the No. 1 seed in the West and going more than two months since their last loss. The Warriors enter the NBA Finals as prohibitive favorites to win a second title in three years.
All of that, understandably, has Durant feeling optimistic.
“It’s like anything that’s new,” Durant said. “You’re still trying to figure out the small details of it all.
“It can only get better from here.”
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