Four years ago KEVIN DURANT said he was through being second. Then last summer a timely text encouraged him to head west, where a Finals MVP performance finally asserted his supremacy and gave the Warriors the rubber match in their title trilogy with the Cavs
About 30 minutes after Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, Warriors forward Draymond Green sat at his locker in full uniform, fiddling with his phone. All around him, teammates hastily showered and dressed, rushing from Oracle Arena and the champagne fumes that polluted the air. But Green was in no hurry to leave. He replayed in his mind the climactic moments of a weeklong collapse against Cleveland: the chase-down block by LeBron James on Andre Iguodala, the clanked three-pointer by Steph Curry over Kevin Love, the mysterious cold front that froze Golden State's usually reliable flamethrowers. How, Green wondered, can I make sure this never happens again?
He could start a group chat, or plan a Hawaiian retreat, or sleep in the gym every night from June to October. But grand gestures guarantee nothing against James. "What will get us over this hump," Green asked himself, "and make us incredible? Not just incredible for a year. What will make us incredible for a long, long time?" Rather than what, the question was who. Green believed the Warriors needed a player to take stress off Curry, so he wouldn't always have to hit the 35-footer, and apply it to James, so he would never again be able to hide on Harrison Barnes, freelancing for blocks and steals. Only one such person who walks the earth was available.
And so, at that locker, in that uniform, less than an hour after the most excruciating loss of his life, Green punched up Kevin Durant's number. "See what we're missing," Green says, recounting the text message he sent Durant. "We need you. Make it happen." Green had been courting Durant for months, but this was his strongest pitch yet, delivered at the most dramatic juncture. "Right after you lose Game 7," Green says, "shows you're serious." Of course the Warriors did not need Durant, not really. They had gone 73--9 without him. But Green would leave nothing to chance. Neither, it turned out, would Durant.
The modern megastar is born with basketball's version of a biological clock, and if ringless at 27, the ticking grows louder than Oracle at tip-off. No one—not even James Harden or Russell Westbrook—can fathom the unique form of pressure placed on the highest class of NBA headliner. It comes from the corporate sponsors, paying the nine-figure shoe contracts, all the way down to the neighborhood friends. "My mom can't relate," says Durant. "My dad can't relate. My brothers can't relate. There's probably one guy in the history of the league who really understands." James, after seven empty seasons in Cleveland, followed the incessant ticking to Miami. Now Durant was on the clock.
Green stared at his phone, waiting for a reply. Up to that point the Thunder were confident they would re-sign Durant when he became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. One Oklahoma City official kept in touch with him through June and was encouraged by his upbeat tone. "The day Golden State lost, everything changed," the official says. "The phone calls, the text messages, they were more distant." The Warriors would have to endure a summer's worth of mortifying memes—punishment for squandering a 3--1 Finals lead—but by the time Green peeled off his home whites and hit the showers, he could sense that his squad would laugh last. Durant's response flashed across the screen: "I'm ready. Let's do this."
Fifty-one weeks later, after Game 5 of another Finals against the Cavaliers, Green was back in that locker room, Durant three stalls to his left, both surrounded by bottles. Instead of texting, they were toasting, to a forever team and its newest ring bearer.
I KNOW THERE is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot. And I know where he is, too. He's in Oklahoma. He's my inspiration, because I see the direction he's headed, and it's the same direction I'm headed. I know his mind-set, and he knows mine. It's a collision course."
LeBron James said that, in the fall of 2012, by the pool on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, five months after he vanquished Durant and the Thunder to claim his first championship. James and Durant were close then, training together in Akron over the summer and dining at Prime 112 in Miami during the Finals. "I was Giannis Antetokounmpo," Durant says, referencing the Bucks' stretchy phenom. "LeBron was larger than life. I was just taller." For the next five years, challengers to the King's throne came and went, from Derrick Rose to Paul George. Durant was the lone threat. He won MVP in '14 before succumbing to foot injuries in '15 and the Warriors in '16. When the Thunder faced the Clippers, Matt Barnes defended Durant while Chris Paul drew Westbrook. "The only person in the world who can stop you," Barnes crowed, "is your teammate." The most effective trash talk, Barnes has discovered in more than a decade of NBA rabble-rousing, is the kind spiked with the smallest shred of truth.
The collision James prophesied never occurred, until Durant decamped for the Warriors and joined a third consecutive installment of their feud with the Cavaliers. During the Finals, he slept only a few hours a night. He studied six years of matchups with James. He visualized himself at the trophy presentation, jumping on the stage, hugging family members. Midway through the third quarter of Game 4, Durant grew irate at a flagrant foul by Love, and James appeared nonplussed at Durant's reaction. They came together by the scorer's table at Quicken Loans Arena, the best and second-best players on the planet, finally nose-to-nose. The details of their debate were insignificant. "What matters," a Durant confidant said, "is that Kevin didn't back down from him."
The Warriors dropped Game 4, their first loss of the playoffs, reviving all the tired 3--1 gags. But this version of Dubs is as different as Durant and Barnes. When they returned to their headquarters at the Oakland Marriott City Center for Game 5, they found that the National Cannabis Industry Association convention had overtaken the premises, less than two months after the Psychedelic Science conference invaded. Three stories up, Durant hoisted extra shots Monday morning, rested in the afternoon and greeted Jerry West when he entered Oracle Arena at night. The Warriors were choppy but Durant steadied them, draining one step-back three in the second quarter to fuel a Golden State run, another in the third to quell a Cleveland surge, and one more in the fourth when the outcome was still in doubt. At the end, when Durant had 39 points and his first title, he asked for the ball and dribbled out the clock. For a moment, he stood alone near the baseline, his teammates in a pile at midcourt. The first person to embrace him was James.
One year after the Warriors racked up the best regular-season record in NBA history, they set the mark for the best postseason record ever, 16--1. For the players who hung their first banner, in 2015, the victory circle felt familiar. For Durant, it was foreign. He obviously stacked the odds in his favor last summer by choosing a four-star free-agent destination, but he was nobody's sidekick in the Bay. KD earned Finals MVP after averaging 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists while playing dogged defense on James. The guy who once sat in the black leather terminal chairs next to the Thunder practice court and rattled off all the times he wound up second—going back to Greg Oden and the high school recruiting rankings—finished first.
DURANT ANNOUNCED he was leaving Westbrook and Oklahoma City on July 4, and the immediate backlash made him wonder if he had done the right thing. "I'm going to have to play perfect," he lamented to a friend. Golden State's coaches described him in training camp as "skittish" and "nervous," the new kid at school looking over his shoulder. "Don't Worry, Be Happy," one of his favorite songs, became an anthem he played in the car. The Warriors have four side baskets with full arcs at their facility in downtown Oakland, and after practice, Curry shoots on one, Green on another, Klay Thompson on a third. Everybody else splits the fourth. There was no rim for Durant, who reluctantly joined the bench mob, squeezing in jumpers with assistant Willie Green before the reserves commenced their shooting games.
"I didn't want anybody to cater to me," Durant says. "I wanted to add value to the group instead of crushing the group and forming another one. I wanted to conform to the culture they built here. But doing that, while being authentic to yourself, is a very fine line. I think I tried too hard to be too cool." An acclimation period was inevitable, given the stark stylistic contrast between Golden State and OKC. "I don't just want to score on isos anymore," Durant told the coaches, a reference to his many one-on-one battles alongside Westbrook. But then he'd remain stationary on the perimeter, missing the slips and pin-downs that are hallmarks of the Warriors' offense, prompting those same coaches to halt film sessions. "KD," they'd say, "you're standing again." In Oklahoma City the ball would find him anyway. In Golden State, where movement is mandatory, it would not.
"I had to be vulnerable," Durant says, "and open up to them." During a preseason trip to play the Lakers in Las Vegas, Durant asked assistant coach Bruce Fraser to take a shot with him at ARIA. Durant's drink is Jameson. Fraser ordered tequila. "Then I'll get tequila, too," Durant said. He tried to remember if he'd ever shared a drink with a coach before. He didn't think he had. "When you make a move like this, you don't know what to expect," Durant told Fraser between sips. "It's a scary thing. But it's actually better than what I expected. This s--- is real." He wasn't talking about the Don Julio 1942. He was referring to the Warriors' much-heralded harmony. Even if nobody was eager to yield a hoop at practice, Curry ceded the ball and the spotlight to Durant for the first couple of months, before Durant ceded them back. Their benevolence was heartening. It was also useless. "Forceful players," one Golden State coach bemoans, "playing without force."
Blending superstars is desirable but delicate work. Any obstacles the Warriors encounter, however, are difficult to pinpoint because they so rarely lose. After an unusual three-game skid in March—when Durant was out with a sprained left MCL—general manager Bob Myers strode into practice and mentioned that everybody was getting fired. "That's O.K.," Fraser cracked. "I'll go coach at the University of Guadalajara." He cited the school's proximity to beaches and tequila distilleries. He could spend his severance on a VW bus. "Are you serious?" Durant interjected. "Because I'll be your assistant."
Durant already owns a 1967 VW bus, olive green with hardwood interiors, parked in the garage of the house he rents in the Oakland hills. "He is kind of a hippie," jokes Rich Kleiman, Durant's business partner, who lives on the bottom floor. Kleiman met Durant when he was an 18-year-old rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics, and he took him to a Jay-Z concert. Kleiman had a backstage pass and Jay-Z wanted to meet the slim sensation. Durant shyly declined. "He's grown so much since then," Kleiman says. Durant has become both baller and seeker. He quizzes the chef at Tosca Café about ingredients, but he's not a foodie. He flies a drone over his home, but he's not a techie. He buys art and snaps pictures, but he's neither collector nor shutterbug. Recently, he was watching Billions with Kleiman, and the hedge-fund managers on the show kept talking about shorting a stock. The next day Durant searched for the definition.
The Warriors were another subject of discovery. "It used to be, you're on your way to the arena, you know you have to be almost perfect in order to win," Durant says. "Now, going to the arena, it's different." He insists that the burden has not disappeared, just shifted. "You think about other parts of your game—cutting ability, passing ability, defense. You don't feel like you have to score every time or make the huge play every time. It doesn't have to be my show." Unchained from nightly double teams, Durant shot the highest percentage of his career (53.7) with the fewest attempts (16.5 per game). He was at his most efficient, not his most prolific, trusting that those slips and pin-downs would generate cleaner looks than headlong drives. Last season Durant dribbled 156.1 times per game, according to NBA.com; this season, 96.6.
By early spring he was even firing on Curry's basket. They'd play games, first to five in a row from a spot on the three-point line. Often, they'd get as high as 15 before someone missed. In April, Fraser made the competitions more collaborative. Together, they had to sink 10 straight. Coincidence or not, Durant and Curry entered the playoffs more synchronized than they'd been all season. The Warriors won their first 14 games, mostly by landslide, until they encountered a sliver of suspense. With 1:15 left in Game 3 of the Finals, Golden State trailed 113--111 and the Cavaliers called timeout. Coach Steve Kerr told his team that when they got the ball back, he wanted it in Durant's hands.
THE COLLISION course, as James called their converging pathways, ended as it began, with a salvo from the left wing. In the summer of 2011, when James was basketball's pariah for bolting Cleveland and heading south, Durant became its darling. The NBA was in a lockout then, and to exercise Durant took 20-mile bike rides around Washington, D.C. He visited the White House and the monuments for the first time, even though he grew up just 10 miles away in Seat Pleasant, Md. When he wasn't sightseeing, he was hooping, at every venerable street-ball haunt he could find, from Barry Farms in D.C. to the Drew League in L.A. The grainy highlights were his basement tapes, and the biggest hit was produced on an electric August night at Rucker Park in Harlem, Durant wearing a generic orange jersey with number 21.
KD was sitting on 57 points when he dribbled down the left side of the court, pulled up from the left wing and buried a three. On the next possession he did it again, same shot, same location. On the possession after that, he did it a third time, a triple in triplicate. The game ended, not because the clock expired, but because the crowd mobbed him like a maypole. Justin Zormelo was on the sideline that night, training Durant during the lockout, and he was in section 113 at Quicken Loans for the last minute of Game 3, when Durant rebounded a Kyle Korver miss and started down the left side.
Zormelo, 33, stayed with Durant in Oklahoma City for two years, developing mind as much as body, introducing him to analytics and facilitating film study. When they parted, Zormelo went to work with Wizards point guard John Wall, but he flew to OKC this season for Durant's return. Zormelo figured his old friend would need all the support he could get. After the Warriors won, Durant ate dinner at Mahogany, and Zormelo noticed him watching cut-ups on his phone. "Interesting," Zormelo thought. "He's still learning."
Before the playoffs Durant asked Zormelo to help him again, and a couple hundred more clips poured into that phone, along with bullet-pointed memos. 1) If Love goes middle, expect the turnaround hook. If he goes baseline, it will be the jumper. 2) LeBron shot 38% on pull-ups driving left, 31% on pull-ups driving right. 3) Cleveland will blitz the pick-and-roll, but give you the midrange jumper off two dribbles, the glass floaters, the two-foot jump stop Js.
Zormelo also sent Durant footage from showdowns with the Cavs and the Heat dating back to 2012. They spoke every day during the Finals, at 4 a.m. on the night before Game 2 and at 2 a.m. on the night before Game 3. This time around, KD was not going out for steak with LeBron. He was looking for ways to carve him up.
As Durant crossed midcourt with 48 seconds left in Game 3 and the Warriors still down by two, Zormelo pleaded telepathically with him to attack the basket. But he knew he wouldn't. As much as Durant prizes efficiency and trumpets reinvention, that pull-up three from the left slot still remains an everlasting piece of his audacious past. It is a rhythm shot, a Rucker shot, the ball effortlessly shuttled from his left hand to his pocket. "You have your schemes, you have your techniques," Durant says, "but it always goes back to backyard basketball." He spotted James, sucking wind one step inside the arc, and let fly over the King's extended left arm. At the release, Durant's right palm hovered above James's head, as if plucking a crown.
While onlookers deconstructed the metaphorical weight of that image, Durant and Zormelo retreated to the Ritz in Cleveland, where they watched film until 3 a.m. on Zormelo's MacBook Pro. To suggest that Durant eclipsed James, based on one shot or even one series, is a stretch. James averaged a triple double in the Finals. But Durant's moonbeam gave Golden State a 3--0 series lead, all but sealing the series and cementing the title.
Outside the locker room after the game, KD's mother threw her arms around Kerr. "I'm so happy for you," the coach said. Wanda Durant—the self-proclaimed "coldest mama in the game"—pulled away. "I'm happy for you," she replied.
Kerr sat out six weeks of the playoffs, due to more misery from the spinal-fluid leak that still has not been fixed. His assistants have seen him suffer for nearly two years, sometimes crushing bags of ice against his face to relieve searing headaches. They've stopped asking how he's feeling. But when he told them he was taking back the grease board for Game 2 from interim coach Mike Brown, they had to wonder. "Are you good?" Fraser said, "or s----y good?" Kerr laughed. S----y good was good enough. His team was about to state its case as the greatest ever assembled, and he couldn't miss that. "They're not invincible," one Cavaliers official said. "But you have to be damn near perfect to beat them."
Durant transforms the Warriors from marvel to monolith, and they change him as well. He was as spectacular for Oklahoma City as he is for Golden State, only in different ways. Because he is flanked by Curry and Thompson, he benefits from sniper spacing that Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha could never give him, and he can do more of the drive-and-kick playmaking that distinguishes James. "How's my defense?" Durant used to ask Thunder assistant Ron Adams during timeouts. Occasionally it was stellar. "But it's gotten consistent," says Adams, now with the Warriors. KD is spared the standard superstar workload, thanks again to his Splash Brothers, and the respites on one end refresh him for the other. In the Finals, Durant shadowed Kyrie Irving and sumo-wrestled James, quite a switch for the former stick figure who supposedly couldn't bench-press 185 pounds at the combine. In a 20-second span of Game 2, Durant blocked a shot by Irving, drilled a pull-up three and swiped a steal from James.
Angst will now engulf Northeast Ohio—and all other locales with ring-hungry headliners—as the realization sets in that no one is vaulting the Warriors for a while, injuries aside. The Durant era has dawned. "I think the dam will open up for him," says Golden State guard Ian Clark. Rivals can overhaul rosters to create more favorable matchups with the Warriors, but unless the NBA and its union introduce another colossal salary-cap spike, there is no apparent way to close the talent gap.
The breathless text from Green, sent in the moments after Game 7 and followed by phone calls to Myers and Durant, will live on. The Warriors lost a championship that night. Who knows how many they won.
Less than an hour after the most excruciating loss of his life, Green texted Durant: "See what we're missing. WE NEED YOU. Make it happen."
"[Conforming] while being authentic to yourself is a very fine line," Durant says of his early Warriors days. "I THINK I TRIED TOO HARD TO BE TOO COOL."
"You have your schemes, you have your techniques," Durant says of his clutch Game 3 trey, "but it ALWAYS GOES BACK TO BACKYARD BASKETBALL."
"Now, going to the arena, it's different," Durant says. "You don't feel like you have to make the huge play every time. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE MY SHOW."