Kevin Durant remains focused on settling in, not settling scores – Yahoo Sports
OAKLAND, Calif. – By the time Kevin Durant was standing under the rim, all alone, as the last line of defense against LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors had already unleashed seven months of frustration – resulting from that incredible NBA Finals collapse, those endless 3-1 lead jokes, those insulting Halloween party RIP cookies and that Christmas afternoon meltdown – on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Draymond Green had already knocked James off his feet with a flagrant foul that he playfully mocked as a flop, and Stephen Curry had already offered a reminder of how special this team is when he’s more aggressive and starts “Steph-ing.” But when the Warriors needed to shut down all hope, it was on the newest participant in the league’s greatest competitive battle – which James refuses to call “a rivalry” – to show that his efficient scoring is only the most talked about aspect of his considerable repertoire.
James came barreling down the lane and lunged toward the rim, where Durant – the Warriors’ resident rim-protector – caught the ball clean, slapped it off James’ head and watched as it landed in Green’s hands to ignite a break. Durant’s block, which also sent James crashing to the floor, was one of the many not-nice ways the Warriors snapped a four-game losing streak in the same building where the Cavaliers claimed their first NBA title last June. But after Monday’s resounding 126-91 victory at Oracle Arena, Durant wasn’t the least bit interested in hearing that the win also ended his personal five-game losing streak to James, dating to Jan. 29, 2014.
“I didn’t know we were playing one-on-one out there,” Durant told The Vertical. “I mean, it’s eight other guys out there, it’s not just me and him.”
The NBA has long been a star-driven league, with superstars used as the primary foundation to market and promote the game. James and Durant have been two of the game’s biggest stars for many years, but James has had a decided edge in head-to-head matchups, going 18-5 against Durant, including a 4-1 series victory in the 2012 NBA Finals. Even if he keeps score in his head and would rather ignore it, Durant wasn’t going to act as if he cared.
“I never really looked at it as, ‘I lost to this guy, I beat this guy that many times,’ ” Durant told the Vertical. “We’re playing as a team. There is a lot of stuff that can happen for you to win a game, especially when it’s good players. But I didn’t know we were playing one-on-one. I didn’t know that was a thing. Do you talk about any matchups against other guys? Does John Wall have more wins against Kyrie Irving? Do y’all talk about that, too? If you want to play one-on-one, look at the stat line across the line, me and him, individually. But we’re not playing one-on-one out there. If we were, then you can start talking. It’s a team game.”
Durant’s desire to be part, but not necessarily the center, of a basketball brotherhood is what led him to Golden State, where the self-less, pass-happy scheme of coach Steve Kerr has resulted in the NBA title Durant lacks and back-to-back Finals appearances. The move has Durant on a team that is 35-6 and only two games off the Warriors’ record-setting 73-win pace of a year ago as he prepares for his second game against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. “I don’t care about our record,” Durant told The Vertical. “We’ve just tried to play some good basketball and not worry about the record. That’s what’s most important to us.”
Before his first meeting against the Thunder in November, Durant went out of his way to explain his reasons for leaving in free agency and opened up about his relationship with former longtime running mate Russell Westbrook. Durant isn’t taking that approach this time around, choosing to instead deflect questions about whether he and Westbrook have spoken, or if he’ll have any emotions when he sees those blue and orange uniforms again. He does admit that the initial 122-96 win over the visiting Thunder went a long way toward helping him settle into his surroundings.
“I’m just glad I could get it out of the way,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’m still getting used to being in a new environment, but I’m just trying to focus on each day, not worrying about what happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future. Just try to stay in the moment. I’m trying to focus on me. It’s easier said than done, but I can’t get distracted about that. I’m focused on the team I’m on now.””
The Warriors continue to work out a few kinks as they navigate how to effectively utilize so many talented offensive weapons. Curry and Durant, the past two league MVPs, knew they would have to make sacrifices for this experiment to work and that has included some manageable growing pains. But an example of their seemingly unfair alliance occurred in the second quarter of Monday’s game, when they were on a two-on-one break against James, who had to decide whether to guard Curry at the 3-point line or Durant at the wing. In end, James chose neither and Curry whipped a bounce pass to a slashing Durant for a dunk.
“I think we had chemistry since the beginning of the season, since training camp,” Durant said of Curry. “I’ve been watching him a long time. He’s been watching me. We know how we play, where he wants the ball and where I want the ball. It’s a matter of experience and just getting out there and playing. But when you’re familiar with someone’s game and you respect someone’s game, it makes it easy to play with them.”
Durant has occasionally slipped into some of his one-on-one tendencies in those rare instances when the Warriors have been in close games, which contributed to a memorable exchange during a Jan. 6 home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies when an animated Green implored Durant to get that out of his system. But Durant has otherwise been an ideal fit for a Warriors team that has allowed him to adjust and learn through his mistakes. His scoring (25.8 points per game) and usage rate (27.6 percent) are the lowest since his second season, but his true shooting percentage (65.1) and rebound percentage (13.6) are at career-high levels – and he is committing fewer turnovers because he doesn’t have to dominate the ball. Durant isn’t surprised at how well he has blended with his new teammates.
“Not at all,” Durant told The Vertical. “You can ask other guys, but I feel like I’m easy to get along with. I feel like I’m easy to play with. I don’t demand much. I feel like I’ve got a high basketball IQ. I’m still adjusting and learning the system and learning what coach wants from me, but for the most part, I’m good at improvising. I’m good at filling in. I can go out there and try to get a basket every possession. Or I can go in a corner and wait for the ball to come to me and space the floor. I feel I can do different things on the court, from being a No. 1 guy to the No. 2 guy to whatever. Setting screens and fighting in the trenches, playing the dirty game, I feel I can do all of that. I think that’s what’s making it easy. I don’t feel like I’m a one-dimensional player.”
James’ dismissive refusal to accept the Warriors as rivals, even as they appear headed toward a third consecutive Finals matchup, is an excellent form of gamesmanship. In addition to riling up Golden State – Green responded by saying, “I know he wants to beat us” – James has also given his teammates a mental edge because they haven’t lost a series to the Warriors with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor.
Durant was the consolation prize for that Finals defeat and had he avoided Richard Jefferson’s foot and wasn’t on his butt as he attempted a game-winning shot on Christmas, the Warriors could’ve had two wins against the defending champions this season. If these teams are destined to meet again in June, Durant won’t concern himself with helping Golden State get revenge – or avenging his own loss to James – until that day arrives. “All I can control is how I come in here and how I approach the game, how I prepare for the game,” Durant told The Vertical. “I try not to let nothing distract me. People have been doing a good job of that early on in this season. I just told myself not to worry about none of that, just focus on what I can do and contribute to this team in a positive way.”
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