With 5:06 remaining in Saturday night’s game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Kevin Durant sank a jumper to give his team a 96-89 lead, and put them on the verge of the NBA finals. The Thunder star, who has flown relatively under the radar compared to league MVP Steph Curry and Cavaliers star LeBron James, was on the verge of a truly shocking upset. Instead, the game was closed out by a 19-5 Warriors run, fueled by two of Klay Thompson’s record 11 three pointers and six Oklahoma City turnovers. Instead of closing the series out, Durant and the Thunder will have to settle for a winner takes all game 7 tonight for the opportunity to face Cleveland in the Finals.
Most people, including myself, did not expect the Thunder to make it this far. Once the darlings of the league, Durant and Russell Westbrook led OKC to the 2011-12 NBA finals, where they fell to LeBron and the Miami Heat. The four years that followed were full of injuries, poor coaching, ill advised trades, and underwhelming performances. This led to the firing of head coach Scott Brooks this offseason and the general feeling that this Thunder core had worn out its welcome. There was only one thing on everyones mind this year when it came to OKC: where will Kevin Durant sign when his contract runs out this year?
When I decided to restart Watertrash earlier this summer I already knew how I was going to write this article. It was going to be titled Why Kevin Durant Will Choose the Celtics. I was going to write the article after the Thunder ducked out of the playoffs early for the fourth straight disappointing season. It would talk about how he had no future playing for an organization that had failed him with bad personnel decisions and shaky coaching for years. A team that had traded James Harden for spare parts and even missed the playoffs last season. And Boston is the perfect fit. He would leave the crowded Western Conference for the vastly easier East, and go from small Oklahoma City to one of the most high profile sports towns in the country. I was going to talk about the 17 championships, the young talent, the cap space, and up and coming coach Brad Stevens. The fit is perfect for both parties, but over the past week I’ve come to grips with the fact that it isn’t going to happen.
After Brooks was fired before the season, the Thunder hired University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan. Donovan’s basketball career began here in Providence, where he was the starting point guard for Rick Pitino’s Friars. He starred in the cinderella 1987 Final Four run, the most successful Providence team ever. He only lasted one year in the NBA and, after a brief “miserable” stint working on Wall Street, he got involved in coaching. he began as an assistant under Pitino at Kentucky before getting his first head coaching gig at Marshall University. His quick success got him a job at Florida, where he led the Gators for 19 years, and won back to back national championships in 2005-06.
Donovan follows a long line of successful college coaches trying to make the transition to the NBA, most of whom haven’t succeeded. Superstar college coaches like Pitino, John Calipari and Jerry Tarkanian have been disasters in their attempts to make it in the pros. Boston’s Brad Stevens has had a promising start to his career, but has yet to have any tangible success. People were skeptical of OKC’s hire, and many thought the high pressure situation would prove too much for Billy Donovan.
Now a game away from the NBA finals, and an upset against the best regular season team of all time, it’s safe to say that Donovan has exceeded expectations. While his season has had plenty of ups and downs, he has improved steadily and has made the necessary adjustments. It has been a tumultuous season for the Thunder, and it speaks to his leadership that he has guided them through it. The problems started when assistant coach Maurice Cheeks underwent hip surgery and was forced to take time off. Then Donovan’s second assistant Monty Williams lost his wife in a tragic car crash, and took the rest of the season off. After the minority owner Aubrey McClendon died in a single car wreck and Demetrius Pinckney, the younger brother of guard Dion Waiters was murdered in Philadelphia, it seemed like this season just wasn’t meant to be.
In addition to his leadership through these tough times, Donovan has earned the respect of his players and made important coaching decisions to lead his team to this point. For Durant to see this out of a first year coach, coupled with the fact that the Thunder have proved their worth amongst the leagues best teams, leads me to believe it doesn’t matter what happens tonight. I think there is a very slim chance that he leaves OKC after this season. Since Russell Westbrook’s contract is up after the next season, I would not be surprised if Durant chose to resign for one year, and then make the decision again a year from now with his close friend.
All year I was counting down the days to free agency and convincing myself that Kevin Durant saw Boston as a target. Now the surprising performance of a team under a first year coach has likely ruined the summer of Durant.