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|Once again, the key to the Thunder will be the play of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant's seventh NBA season starts in earnest Saturday morning when the Thunder gather for their first practice of 2013-14. Then it gets a little more real Sunday morning when Durant rises on his 25th birthday.
Seven seasons, four All-Star Games, three scoring titles, two types of gold medals with Team USA ... and one unsuccessful trip to the NBA Finals.
Those of us afforded the opportunity to spend Friday in Durant's company at Oklahoma City's annual media day came away with the clear impression that he's going to be hung up on the lone blank on his résumé when he hits the big Two-Five. Rest assured he's not going to be dwelling on presents or a cake or that silly Twitter beef with Dwyane Wade.
An example of the thoughts circulating in KD's head as his latest milestone approaches:
"I'm starting to get up there a little bit," Durant says.
Emphasis on starting. No one is exactly panicking on Durant's behalf yet when it comes to winning championships. LeBron James , after all, had to wait nine seasons to win ring No. 1. Durant's unchallenged status as the league's foremost gym rat -- "He can literally play basketball for eight hours a day every day," teammate Kendrick Perkins insists -- likewise makes me think he'll try to play in the NBA until he's 40. Which should give him many more shots at the title.
Yet the legit trouble here is that Durant, so soon after railing to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins in April about how he's "tired of being second," finds his team closer to fourth/fifth/sixth range these days. The electric Russell Westbrook will be back soon from last spring's meniscus tear and looked positively bubbly when it was his turn Friday afternoon at the interview podium. It was as comfortable as I've ever seen him in the presence of reporters. But KD and Russ have a new battle to wage in Year 6 of their dynamic (and occasionally polarizing) partnership, fighting the perception (reality?) that the Thunder have legitimately slipped a level since losing the 2012 Finals in five games to LeBron's Heat.
"All that stuff comes from the outside," Durant countered Friday. "That's from fans that only look at ESPN. ... [Such sentiments] don't come from the inside.
"I think that the most important thing is worrying about what comes from the group, how we feel as a group and as an organization. We feel that we're in a good position and that's all that really matters.
"We're all excited. If we come in thinking that we lost momentum, or anything like that, that'll just mess us up."
The defiance is admirable and inevitable from someone as proud as Durant, but there's no getting around the fact that James Harden and his 2012-13 replacement (Kevin Martin) are both Thunder alumni now. And thanks to the strict budgetary guidelines mandated by Thunder owner Clay Bennett, OKC finds itself banking on the internal development of youngsters Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, as well as the presumed sparks forthcoming when Durant and Westbrook are fully reunited, to make up for the significant losses it has incurred in terms of bench scoring and playmaking over the past year.
Which is why so many of us pests on the outside are openly wondering if the Thunder have enough to regain the 60-win form we witnessed before Westbrook went down, since they suddenly have little to show in return for Harden unless they use the trade exception they created via Martin's sign-and-trade to Minnesota.
It's no lock even if you presume, as we do here, that Westbrook will make a fairly full recovery from the knee tear he suffered when Houston's Patrick Beverley lunged at him in Game 2 of OKC's first-round series with Harden's Rockets.
Said Westbrook: "The main problem is, I personally think, since James has left I think everybody thinks we need somebody to fill that slot. The slot doesn't have to be filled. We have a great team. If everybody does their job, we should be all right."
Said trusted Thunder reserve forward Nick Collison: "I think the question needs to be how can we get Kevin and Russ and all of our guys to function better as a unit. We can't rely on those guys to bail us out all the time. It's just too hard. It's too hard to make that many incredible plays. Especially in the playoffs.
"On the offensive side, we need to get more of our shots out of our execution and less out of [leaning on] our great players that we have. We've known that for years and we've gotten a lot better at that over the years. It's just continuing the process."
And Durant: "We're really confident that we can [win it all] ... We're not going to come in and say, 'We can't win it all, we don't have enough.' We're a confident group of guys, we're an experienced group of guys. So, yeah, I think so."
Collison is undoubtedly correct ... provided that the role players are worthy. The working theory in Thunder circles is that being forced to play so many playoff games without Westbrook will deliver some sort of payoff this season, particularly in Jackson's case, but let's face it: OKC is going nowhere unless Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all "come back a little bit better" as Thunder coach Scotty Brooks is claiming.
"I think our guys did a lot of growing up," Brooks says, "including myself."
Durant added: "I'm excited for the opportunity I'm going to have ... to step into a different phase as a leader. I'm just more seasoned. You get better with time; that's how I feel. I just feel more seasoned, more experienced, I just feel more like a vet. I've been through every situation, so I'm ready to take it head on and embrace everything."
Apparently so. Perkins made the biggest media-day revelation when he broke the news that Durant does pay far more attention to that external chatter than he's ever let on.
"He reads everything that y'all write about him," Perkins said. "He wanna see the good and he wanna see the bad. I just know Kevin wants to come out here and show the world who he is.
"I think we're all watching Kevin just grow. He's becoming a man. Not saying he wasn't before, but he's becoming his own man. Kevin wants to be the best. He wants to be the best player in the NBA.
"You know he's got to keep his humble image [in public], but behind the scenes sometimes you see a different Kevin Durant. Sometimes he turns [the anger] on, but we embrace it. I actually love it. I told him, 'Sometimes it's all right to be the bad guy in certain situations.' So I think he's balancing out the two."
That's Kevin Durant. Older and wiser and back to the work this weekend with the loftiest of goals.
Must be why, at a mere 25, KD says he's starting to hear that ticking clock in the distance when no one else does.