By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
Kevin Durant mesmerized the basketball world with a regular season for the ages — 50-point games, impossible buzzer-beaters and statistical anomalies that flipped the record books back to Michael Jordan.
It all seemed to happen so easily, so naturally for him.
But on Sunday, barely 12 hours after his Oklahoma City Thunder bowed out of the Western Conference finals, the league’s Most Valuable Player, in a very honest moment, admitted that the season’s many adversities had stretched his psychological boundaries.
“It felt like everything was being thrown at me as a leader, just talking about myself,” Durant said. “It just felt like everything was being thrown at me to try to get me to quit, and there were nights where I didn’t think I could do it, where I didn’t think I could lead these guys.”
With co-star Russell Westbrook sidelined for nearly half of it with a knee injury, and later two more starters, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, each missing six weeks with their own ailments, Durant said the burden of leading and lifting his team throughout these last seven months tested his resolve through multiple sleepless nights.
“There were nights where I didn’t think I could do it because sometimes I was going as hard as I could and it still wasn’t working,” Durant said. “But I just stayed confident and just knowing that there’s going to be good and bad days, days when you struggle, days when you do well. Just knowing that helped me out a lot, and it prepared me a lot for this season and hopefully for the future. I’m thankful for those times that I can grow through them and get better from them.”
In the end, Durant and the Thunder reached their third West finals in four seasons, but ultimately fell short of their ultimate goal of winning a championship.
Still, the team remains young, immensely talented and intact. This season, with its many hurdles the team faced for the first time — including the blow of losing power forward Serge Ibaka for the first two games against the Spurs — might come to be looked upon as the moment on the timeline when Durant and OKC’s core came of age.
“Physically, I think I can compete with anybody; you put me on the court with anybody, I can hold my own, that’s just how I feel,” Durant said. “But mentally, everything being thrown at you, from Russell getting hurt — from him never being injured before — to having to be out there and being our source of energy for everybody on our team, giving everybody confidence from Serge to Nick [Collison] to Steven [Adams] to Thabo to Perk, from everybody looking at me and looking for confidence and looking to feel confident in themselves.
“Once I saw that I could do it, I kind of saw it from there in terms of having confidence. It was a great season as far as learning for all of us and being part of such a great group of guys that accept me no matter what, on my good and bad days.”
Durant won his first MVP in his seventh season. He averaged career-highs in points per game (32.0) and assists (5.5), plus 7.4 rpg. He was one of the game’s most efficient scorers, shooting 50.3 percent overall and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
When Westbrook received the stunning news that he would need a third surgery on his right knee just hours after posting a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day, the job of keeping Oklahoma City near the top of the West standings fell on Durant.
He bettered his season averages through 26 games without Westbrook — 35.0 ppg (52.7 percent shooting, 39.9 percent on 3s), 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg) — and virtually made the MVP award his to lose. Oklahoma City surged to the top of the West. An adjustment period upon Westbrook’s return eventually led to the Thunder finishing with the No. 2 seed and 59 wins, one off the previous season’s win total and the franchise’s highest since moving to Oklahoma City.
Durant’s scoring efficiency dipped in the postseason (29.6 ppg on 46-percent shooting, 34.4 on 3s) and his performances from game to game, starting against Memphis’ suffocating defense, were uneven as he averaged a team-high 42.8 mpg.
In Game 6 against the Spurs, the magic he performed all season eluded him. Trailing 100-99 in the final 27 seconds of overtime, Durant looked to make a move past defender Kawhi Leonard from a few feet above the top of the arc, but he slipped to the floor and lost the ball for his seventh turnover.
Finally, with a chance to tie coming out of a timeout, Durant missed an open 3 from the wing with 15 seconds left. It was his sixth misfire on eight 3-pointers in the game, and his last shot of a long, taxing season.
And one Durant will glean plenty of meaning from as he exits into the offseason.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Durant said. “And I’m very appreciative of the opportunity I had this season to grow as a leader and a man and a basketball player.”
He will be back.