The day Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors traveled to New York this season, a billboard was raised near Madison Square Garden.
“Can you make NY sports great again?” it read, over a depiction of Durant in an unlabeled — but unmistakably Knicks — blue and orange jersey.
There is no indication such an overt recruiting pitch will go up in time for Durant’s visit Monday to Staples Center to face the Clippers. Billboards in L.A. Live belong either to Nike ads celebrating LeBron James or Netflix specials, and anyway, Durant has said he’s “not really impressed with that type of stuff."
Yet there is no doubt the Clippers (7-5) want to put their best foot forward in the season’s first matchup against the Warriors (11-2) and their two-time Finals MVP, whose decision on whether to become a free agent next summer could tip the NBA’s balance of power.
Should Durant decline a $31.5-million player option for next season he would become an unrestricted free agent at the same time the Clippers can clear enough payroll space for two maximum contracts.
“I easily could’ve signed a long-term deal, but I just wanted to take it season by season and see where it takes me,” Durant said in September as the two-time defending champion Warriors began training camp.
If the Clippers could land the nine-time All-Star and 2014 MVP, Durant easily would be the most accomplished player signed by the organization, which has struggled to attract top talent despite its desirable location.
Under the ownership of Steve Ballmer, the Clippers have attempted to change that. They’ve bulked up the front office, coaching and medical departments in hopes of putting themselves in the best position to land a game-changing player. As Ballmer told Bleacher Report this season, invoking his pitch to players: “You be in L.A., the greatest market in the world, and you show people: ‘I’m the guy! I went to a franchise who’d never been there! I’m the guy! I made it happen! I get a legacy!’ ”
Many surrounding the Clippers wonder whether Durant will join them, however under the NBA’s rules against tampering, teams can’t talk about players under contract elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the players are tasked with trying to beat him.
Durant has averaged 26.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in his third season in Oakland and could carry a larger workload Monday with All-Star teammates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green nursing injuries. The Warriors will meet a Clippers team buoyed by Saturday’s overtime victory over red-hot Milwaukee — the same Bucks who routed the Warriors on the road by 23 points two days earlier.
“It makes a statement that we’re continuing to get better game by game,” said forward Tobias Harris, who has scored at least 15 points in 12 consecutive games, which ties for the league’s second-longest active streak. “We’re continuing to find our identity and just try to grow as a group. That was a tough team over there.”
The Warriors, who lead the league in points scored per 100 possessions, still remain the measuring stick, but the Clippers profess not the slightest bit of awe.
“They're another basketball team, man,” center Montrezl Harrell said. “They lace their shoes up, put their uniforms on just like we do. And they've gotta come in here and play us.”
Saturday’s matchup with Milwaukee marked the most extensive playing time this season for second-year players Tyrone Wallace and Sindarius Thornwell. Their opportunity was a long time coming, coach Doc Rivers said.
“We were going to see them going into the game, not because of Milwaukee; just think it's time they start playing,” Rivers said.
The decision to play Thornwell for the first time and Wallace a season-high 12 minutes was made easier by the matchup. The Bucks’ length required defenders who could stay in front and with Avery Bradley unavailable because of injury, Rivers believed the Wallace and Thornwell, both 6-foot-5, could help the Clippers’ perimeter defense most. As a result, guards Jerome Robinson and Milos Teodosic were displaced in the rotation.
During 31 defensive possessions in which he guarded seven different Bucks, Wallace allowed his man to directly score four points, according to Second Spectrum. Thornwell allowed two direct points on nine defensive possessions.
“You’ve got to stay in front of the ball with toughness, and Sin, he has boatloads of toughness,” Rivers said. “We're going to see him a lot more, him and Ty.”
VS. GOLDEN STATE
When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket/NBA TV; Radio: 570, 1330.