OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant turned 25 on Sunday yet it seems like he’s already claimed a career’s worth of accomplishments:
- Three-time scoring champ
- 4-time All-Star
- 4-time All-NBA First Team
- Rookie of the Year
- Olympic gold medalist
“Man, it seems like yesterday I was in high school,” Durant said. “Now I’m going into my seventh year in the best league in the world. It’s unbelievable how time flies, especially when you’re having fun playing the game you love. … I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I’m excited for the opportunity I’m going to get as a leader, to step into a different phase as a leader and just see what happens.”
There is one significant achievement Durant has yet to pocket and it’s one he’ll hear about until he raises the Larry O’Brien trophy. That’s just the way it is for the game’s great players, and right now only two-time champion LeBron James stands ahead of Durant. His mission is to return the Oklahoma City Thunder to The Finals after last season’s disappointing West semifinal loss following Russell Westbrook‘s knee injury.
Memphis choked off Durant down the stretch of the final four games to win in five, opening him up for the first time to instant, if largely unjust, criticism. Knee-jerked into the can’t-win-it-all category that James found himself in following the Cavs’ miserable ending to the 2010 playoffs, Durant and the Thunder were said to have lost their championship momentum. Somehow their window, despite their youth and All-Star credentials, was shrinking with the Clippers, Warriors and Rockets all on the move.
“That stuff comes from the outside, from fans that only look at ESPN or comes from media guys; that doesn’t come from the inside,” Durant said. “That’s the most important thing is worrying about what comes through the group, how we feel as a group and as an organization, and we feel that we’re in a good position. We’re all excited. If we come in thinking we lost momentum or anything like that, that’ll mess us up. So we just try to focus on each and every day and we’ll be fine.”
Durant said he’ll be better this season. Asked where his game has improved, he put it this way:
“It’s more seasoned. You get better with time and that’s how I feel, I just feel more seasoned, more experienced,” Durant said. “Once you hit that stage it just kind of clicks for you so hopefully it helps me out this year. Of course, I put work in on my game, different parts of my game, but I just feel more like a vet and just ready to take on … I’ve been through every situation, so I’m ready to take it head on and ready to just embrace everything.”
James won his first title in his ninth season at age 27. Michael Jordan was also 27 when he claimed his first of six rings in his seventh season, the one Durant is about to enter. The depth question has gained plenty of traction in OKC, particularly if young guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb can replace the bench scoring of Kevin Martin (who replaced super sub James Harden).
This is a team that boasts two top 10 players in Durant and Westbrook, 24, who might miss the beginning of the season as he continues to rehab from knee surgery. But, he is expected to return to his fearless ways before long. Add reigning shot-block king and evolving offensive weapon Serge Ibaka, 24, and the Thunder, which finished last season ranked No. 2 in offense rating and No. 4 in defense rating according to NBA.com stats, should once again be equipped to compete for the championship.
“Yeah, we’re really confident that we can,” Durant said. “We’re not going to come in and say, ‘look, we can’t win it all, we don’t have enough.’ We’re all a confident group of guys and an experienced group of guys. So, yeah, I think so.”