At 7:44 p.m. on Friday, Kevin Durant sauntered onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena wearing white and gold Beats headphones that drowned out the sound of cheers from a collection of Golden State Warriors fans nearby and boos emanating from throughout the building. He looked around and took it in for several minutes, singing along to the music, before beginning his warmup routine.
He took a few shots with a regular arc, then began his regular routine of shooting high-arching shots he’d never shoot in a game, grinning when he finally got one to fall through the net.
Every camera, every cell phone, the eyes of every person standing on the edges of the court followed Durant as he did it, knowing that if the Warriors win the NBA Finals, it will be because of that man.
“Man on a mission,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said.
Even before the series began, it was about Durant, the former MVP the Warriors added in order to topple the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The move came with criticism both for the Warriors and for Durant himself, accused of joining the team that beat him the year before. But once it started, Durant took over.
“He sees it,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “He sees the finish line. He sees the ultimate goal and he hasn’t gotten there yet. That’s what it’s about.”
He’s scored more than 30 points in every game of the Finals, and joins Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan as the only players to score 25 or more points in their first nine Finals games. His game-winning three-pointer in the final minute of Game 3 gave the Warriors a 3-0 lead. And he is the reason why Game 5 on Monday feels so different from Game 5 last year, which began the Warriors’ descent.
“I’m just trying to be the best me I can be,” Durant said. “That’s the only pressure I worry about.
“If I don’t play up to my standards, then that’s what — that’s when I get upset. I have bad games, but it’s just a matter of me just trying to be the best me I can be, go out there and work extremely hard on my game and try to showcase it.”
His journey here started with what happened a year ago in this very series.
Durant didn’t actually watch that series. He stopped watching the Finals ever since he started playing on contending teams.
Sometime soon after that loss, Green called Durant — Green says it was immediately after the game, while Durant says it wasn’t — and the two old friends talked about the series.
“I had built a pretty good relationship with him over the course of the years,” Green said. “We would exchange texts during the season and just, ‘Hey, man, how you doing?’ Just regular conversations just like anyone would have over the course, you know, you get to know people better and better.
“Now when we started playing each other in the conference finals everything kind of came to a halt, but that’s how it should be.”
Durant made the same kind of decision LeBron James did, six years later. He left the team that drafted him (the Oklahoma City Thunder) to chase a championship, to instantly join a title contender. But it was more than the Warriors’ winning that attracted him.
“I think he saw something that he could really be a big part of,” Livingston said. “It’s not just about him. I think he understands in his 10 years in the NBA, the best team wins. Not always the best players. Seeing that we promote team basketball, we have great players but we all play together, and we play the right way. I think that’s enticing for him as a basketball player.”
Aiming to fit in, not to bigfoot his way around his new team, Durant did so seamlessly.
“There was no judgment when he came here,” his mother, Wanda, said. “They opened his arms to him and they welcomed him. When you’re in a place that wants you and a place where you want to be, you flourish.”
There wasn’t judgment from inside the Warriors bubble, but there was plenty of it outside it.
“That was quite hurtful,” Wanda said after Game 4 in Cleveland. “I understood that they were disappointed that he left and I could take a little of the rhetoric, but they — I still get it. I could show you some stuff on my phone now and it’s just downright disgusting. It’s just deplorable, the things people have said about him, to me. It’s downright disrespectful. No matter how well he does. The great first three games, they did it. Tonight they did it.”
On Twitter, one person told her he hopes Kevin dies. Another person addressed her as ugly when asking the question. Many called him a coward.
Through all the noise, Durant’s concentration intensified as the playoffs went on, and especially during the course of the Finals. His shooting regimen lengthened. He seemed more focused.
Throughout the Finals, he showed a willingness to step forward in a way he hasn’t at other points in his career. The Warriors succeed because of their egalitarian philosophy, but in the Finals, Durant has been their floor general.
“He’s just focused and locked in at the task at hand,” Green said.
And while that intensity shows itself in his preparation, it all means that on the court, during games, he just follows his instincts.
It’s been years since Wanda Durant has seen her son play this way, so free and unburdened. Not since his one season in college, and before that back to when he was a little boy just starting to learn the game of basketball.
“It’s been a dream come true,” she said. “This has been his life. This has been what he was working for ever since he was 7 years old. To see him on this big stage is really good but ultimately he’s playing free. His game is just elevated because he’s happy here. That’s what I see.”
That he’s doing it on the NBA Finals stage only adds to her joy.