Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant Visit Will Be Final Step For Oklahoma City

The Golden State Warriors will battle the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third time this season Saturday, marking the first game Kevin Durant plays in Oklahoma City wearing a different jersey.

In the previous two matchups between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder this season, the Warriors have won by a combined 47 points.

Granted that first matchup in November came on the back end of a brutal back-to-back in which the previous night the Thunder bested the Los Angeles Clippers.

Despite the Thunder’s best efforts, both meetings this season Kevin Durant has come out firing at approximately the temperature of a blowtorch, incinerating his previous team for 40 and 39 points respectively, his two best scoring outputs of the season.

The Warriors will surely roll into town looking to get this game for the newest piece to their puzzle and Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder will do their very best to stop that from happening.

But this piece isn’t really about breaking down Xs and Os and what will happen on the court Saturday night. In that respect, the Warriors have the undeniable upper hand thanks to their superior talent and ability.

It’s more about what will happen in the stands, as boos will invariably descend upon Kevin Durant from start to finish.

The five stages of grief are classified as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Any time a player of Durant’s magnitude leaves a team, its fans are bound to feel a giant void that can only be created by that generational talent leaving.

That may be a dark way of painting the picture of how Thunder fans felt after Kevin Durant left, but fandom is not rational. The word “fan” itself is short for fanatic.

Durant was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics with the second pick of the 2007 draft and moved along with the franchise to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season.

He was the undeniable face of the franchise, despite playing alongside other notable homegrown talent like Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. He even donated $1 million to the American Red Cross in 2013 after a terrible tornado swept through Oklahoma City.

So when Durant made his decision over the summer, it shocked and dismayed the people of Oklahoma, because loyalty rules above all in the world of fandom.

In order to encapsulate that, I wanted to get an opinion of recent events directly from a Thunder voice. In talking with Brady Trantham, editor of Thunder Digest and longtime follower of all things Oklahoma sports, he described the initial feeling of Durant leaving as shock.

“It didn’t really register right away as far as him leaving to the Warriors, but that he was gone after having such a connection to the community, and that we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye.”

Trantham also predicted the reception Saturday for Durant will be ripe with boos, and have the intensity of a playoff game.

“I think Thunder fans will be more willing to mend fences when Kevin (Durant) is in the twilight of his career and time will have healed some wounds, sort of like how the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal have made up.”

That Durant left for the team that just ousted Oklahoma City from the playoffs was no doubt salt in the wound, but nothing can be done to change that now. Saturday will mark an opportunity for many of the Thunder faithful to advance to that final stage of acceptance.

The visceral image of seeing Durant on what was once his home floor in a different uniform will no doubt register more vividly than in any game this season.

May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In a sit down interview with ESPN’s Marc Stein that aired Thursday, Durant said:

“No matter what goes on [Saturday night in OKC] — cheers, boos — I know that stuff will be remembered, and it’s something that I’m always going to remember.”

The reality is that despite the comparisons to when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, the similarities stop at two of the elite players in the entire world changing teams.

The Thunder are in a far better position to compete for a playoff spot for years to come with another superstar in Westbrook, plus complementary pieces in Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter.

Though Oklahoma City pales in comparison to Golden State right now in terms of talent, their organizational infrastructure and reputation are among the very strongest in the entire league, a remarkable feat for a franchise that moved a mere nine years ago.

When a team loses a franchise cornerstone such as Durant, there is no immediate fix or replacement. That slack has to be picked up by the entire team, a task that has been taken on by the Thunder this season.

They are 31-23, in good standing to make the playoffs but a far cry from where they were a year ago.

The star has been Westbrook, whose volume has increased even more post-Durant. His rampage across the league has seen no limits, with his triple-double counter up to 26 through 54 games, on pace for 39 this season.

Yet it seems Westbrook’s dominance has come out of necessity more than greed, as Durant left a gaping hole in playmaking with his departure, leaving the Thunder to plug in Oladipo and on the hunt for another wing this trade deadline.

Oklahoma City’s shot quality offensively has gone down as a whole, illustrated by their decrease in effective field goal percentage from 52.4 percent in 2015-16 to 49.8 percent this season, per NBA Stats.

One could argue that decrease is largely attributed to Westbrook averaging nearly 24 shots per game and having 24 percent 3-point shooter Andre Roberson shoot 2.6 3-pointers per game, but those are necessary evils to the Thunder’s offense right now.

The good news is that Oklahoma City has won largely with its defense, with the seventh-best defensive rating in the league currently at 104.4, according to NBA Stats. The Thunder have centered their team around a relatively young core that can grow together.

General manager Sam Presti also has a pretty good draft record, most recently with 2016 draft day acquisition Domantas Sabonis looking like a legitimate NBA player for years to come.

Saturday night will be the first step in healing for Oklahoma City. Boos will likely rain down every time Durant touches the ball, but the franchise is far from forsaken in the hands of Presti and with the likes of Westbrook and head coach Billy Donovan piloting the ship.

In my short time covering the Thunder, the word “resilient” comes to mind when trying to describe their fan base, in sports and in life.

Oklahoma City remains one of the most passionate fan bases in the entire NBA, and after sustaining what is easily the most damaging hit to an NBA franchise (a superstar leaving through free agency), it remains well above water.

Saturday night will be another chapter, the end of one perhaps. But there is no doubt that several chapters are ahead, with the best yet to come.

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