Durant, Thunder look to take final step to title

OKLAHOMA CITY   Seems these days Kevin Durant and LeBron James are pretty much linked together.

Opponents in the 2012 Finals.

Gold-medal teammates at the 2012 Olympics.

Offseason workout partners.

Best players in the NBA.

And after the shortest summer of Durant’s career, he now gets a chance to do something James did this time a season ago.

Try and win a championship a season after losing a championship while dealing with questions about it all season long.

Durant and his teammates met the media Monday for the first time this season and began that process with this: How will the Oklahoma City Thunder react after getting to the Finals, winning the first game, then losing the next four?

Pressure? Turn it up in Oklahoma City. This team has improved every season since relocating from Seattle five years ago. Durant has too, but 2012 looks to be the most challenging for Durant and his team because they will be expected to be great.

“We’ve been there,” Durant said. “We came up short. It was tough. Nothing’s guaranteed that you’re going to get (back to The Finals). We’re hungry. We want to get back. We have to take it one day at a time. That’s the approach I’m going to take with this group and enjoy this process and know it’s a tough, long road.”

And nothing was shorter than this past offseason, a strange dynamic where Durant, along with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, went from being adversaries with Miami’s James to becoming teammates.

“Being on the same team with him after we lost in the Finals was the toughest thing,” Durant said of playing alongside James. “Seeing him every day out there. I had to let that go and focus on Team USA. That’s what I did. I grew a lot mentally when I did that. Letting things go and moving on. It was tough, but I helped the team win a gold.”

Meanwhile, the Thunder went from Finals favorites after beating Dallas, Los Angeles and San Antonio to becoming “not ready for the moment” in losing four in a row. Now, they have seemingly been passed by the Lakers thanks to the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

That’s a lot to digest in a three-month span. More questions to answer, too.

“We definitely know how to approach it now,” Harden said of dealing with expectations and the bright stage of the Finals. “We know what to expect from each other. Especially the core. It’s Kevin and Russell and I come off the bench. It makes that transition easier coming into a new season, so now we can focus on the pieces we have.”

Well, give the Thunder players a win for handling a day full of, “How has this team reacted to losing in the Finals?” questions. Now, more questions are on the way from off-the-court issues, like whether the Thunder will be able to re-sign Harden by the end of the month, to on-the-court issues like how Durant will be called on to improve again. 

“Every possession is important in every way,” Durant said. “We need every single person. It’s more than scoring, rebounding and assists. It’s more than stats. It’s hustle points, deflections, keeping balls alive.”

And it needs to be more of the same. Similar to the Heat, a year after losing to Dallas in the Finals, the question with the Thunder isn’t on the court, it’s in their heads. They won’t be dealing with chemistry issues like the Lakers will be, but they will be dealing with the mental aspect of living up to what’s expected.

“It’s tough to lose. So tough to lose,” Durant said. “I really thought it was our year. I thought we had a good run. Unfortunately it wasn’t. It was tough to go through that.”

Yet, Durant said he’s moved on, enough so that he answered the phone last month when James called to ask him if he wanted to work out with him again – just like they did before last season. Another link between the two.

“I’ve been friends with him since high school,” Durant said. “I just want to work out, and I will with anybody. I’ve worked out with Kobe Bryant and I’ve worked out with Carmelo to get better. (James) was the first guy who called me, and I said, ‘Why not?'”

A move coach Scott Brooks says he likes for Durant and the Thunder.

“He wants to be the best player he can be,” Brooks said. “With him working out with LeBron, I have no problem with that. You get better by playing against the best players.”

Now we get to see if Durant learned anything from James on how he dealt with losing in the Finals.

Because that’s what people are going to want to know. Can Durant match James and be mentioned alongside him once more? 

“He has to continue to be a leader,” Brooks said of Durant. “He’s taken steps. The first couple years, he showed improvement. He has to continue in that direction.”