OAKLAND – Yep, this new NBA world in which Kevin Durant is with the Golden State Warriors is still weird.
Team USA’s 107-57 rout of China in its latest exhibition affair at the Warriors’ Oracle Arena did nothing to change that – not to mention the 22 days that have passed since he announced his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder behind and join the team that knocked him out of the Western Conference Finals less than two months ago.
Weird isn’t good, and it isn’t bad. After all, we’re not picking sides here. From this perspective, Durant and the new-look Warriors will be the kind of basketball experiment that can’t truly be judged until next June. It’s title or bust, with nothing in between.
This national team experience, more than anything else, is a convenient chemistry builder for Durant and new teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
But, from the pregame scene where he was signing jerseys to the unique setting in which Stephen Curry and Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala watched (along with Warriors general manager Bob Myers, assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, assistant coach Ron Adams and Warriors folks), the surreal feeling when Durant first came to town back on July 7 was still there. For Durant as much as anyone else.
“I’m not going to lie, it felt a little weird for these fans to be cheering me on like that – obviously being somewhere for so long and then making a change,” Durant said afterward. “But it felt great. I just appreciate all the basketball fans that come and enjoy us playing. It was cool, man. It was different. Obviously it’s going to be different, but the vibes were great. Everybody showed me major love, showed the team major love. It was fun.”
As Green noted, the sight of Durant bouncing a ball inside this particular building did make the whole superstar pairing just a tad more real. In due time, during this forthcoming season in which he will inevitably don the proverbial black hat for making this free agency move, this will be his safe haven.
“It was amazing,” Green said. “Just to play with him on this floor is great. But to be playing for our country, where we suit up 41 times a year, that was special…He was excited. He’s definitely excited…He was himself in the locker room, but he kept saying, like ‘Man, I’ve got the jitters, the first-game type jitters.
“Coming back here today, obviously it was a USA game, but to me it was more about him than anything. For him to come here, his first game play here as a member of our team in a USA jersey? That, nobody will look at it that way, but that’s history. I’m not sure if that’s ever happened. That’s special.
Added Thompson of Durant: “He’s fun to play with. He doesn’t dominate the ball, and he makes it look real easy. I’m going to learn from him just like I learned from Steph and everyone on this team. We’re going to have a lot of room to grow together, and it starts with (Team) USA, so it’s going to be a fun 2016-17.”
Through three exhibition wins over Argentina and China (twice) in which Team USA has won by an average of 45.3 points, the players are having plenty of fun here too.
A few highlights from the latest night of national team action:
• Having started alongside Thompson and Green (along with DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving), Durant scored the national team’s first 10 points: a three-pointer from the left wing, two dunks on the break and three free throws after he was fouled from long range. The Americans were on their way early, leading 35-10 after the first quarter.
As we would later learn, this fast start was all part of a grand Team USA plan.
“Coming out the gate, Kyrie was like, ‘Hey, I’m coming to you right away,’” Green said. “We get the jumpball, we go to him and he knocks the three down.’ He was definitely excited, and it was great to see.”
• After Durant finished the first-half action, hitting a three from the right wing for a 52-24 lead, the camaraderie that was such a pivotal part of the Warriors’ free agency proposal was on full display during the break. As Durant came out to take shots, he noticed the late-arriving Curry standing on the sideline.
They hugged. They laughed. They whispered silly stuff into each other’s ears. And when famed NBA photographer Andy Bernstein came by to capture the moment, they were more than willing to pose for a picture that, in a way, captured the very spirit of this superstar union. Curry, who played through an ailing right knee in the playoffs and chose against playing for Team USA in order to recover, seemed more than happy to share that spotlight on his home floor.
“It was just catching up,” Durant said of his conversation with Curry. “It was good to see him, glad he came to support us, him and Dre (Iguodala). I just asked him what he was doing for the rest of the summer, and told him when I’d come back and stuff like that.”
• As the Warriors saw firsthand during their conference finals matchup with the Thunder, Durant’s defense has improved quite a bit since his early years. Team USA coach Mike Kryzewski, who had Durant on the 2010 team that won gold in the FIBA World Championship and the 2012 squad that won gold in the London Olympics, has noticed the evolution like everyone else.
“He continues to grow and get better,” Krzyzewski said. “To be quite frank with you, the best thing that I see improvement with him in is defense. He has really become an outstanding defender. And if we can get him to stop reaching at the end of the clock, then that would be better. He keeps improving, because he wants to improve.
“He really loves the game of basketball. And being one of the best players in the world, he’s easy to play with…He’s really a fantastic guy and a fantastic player.”
• Durant and the Warriors are still three months away from having to figure this stuff out when it truly counts, but that doesn’t mean the conversation about how it might all work (or not work) will end anytime soon. To that end, he gave an interesting answer afterward when asked if these Warriors might suffer some of the same setbacks as the 2010-11 Miami Heat squad that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together for the first time.
“I don’t know; I don’t know,” Durant said. “I know I’m a basketball player, and I know I like to serve my teammates. I know I like to play a good brand of basketball, and whatever that translates into, we’ll see what happens.
“I don’t envision anything bad happening, or any rifts between teammates. Obviously there’s going to be a transition period because it’s new, but for the most part I’m going to try my best to fit in but also still play my game. And I think everybody else around me is going to try to elevate me as well. It should be fun, man. It’ll be fun figuring things out. I’ll put it that way.”