At this juncture of the 2012 playoffs, Kevin Durant had already won three scoring titles, edging out the incomparable Kobe Bryant by a tenth of a point that season. He finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting, two spots ahead of Kobe. And he knocked Kobe out of the playoffs.
Despite the fact that KD was going to his first NBA Finals, closing in on the top spot and facing LeBron James -- the brand name who bolted to South Beach and surrounded himself with two Top 10 players in a desperate chase for a ring -- the bar was still an aging Kobe Bryant.
After knocking Kobe’s Lakers out of the playoffs, Durant began studying aspects of the Black Mamba's game, same as most of the great players that Kobe preceded.
“I've really been looking at the mental aspect of the game, how [Kobe Bryant] approaches it, watching film, studying opponents, just making sure he's vocal every time down," Durant told J.A. Adande in a 2012 ESPN article, before taking on the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. "Posting up, the footwork that he uses posting up and how patient he is on the offensive end. I'm learning, every single day. I know that I work hard. It's going to take me some time, but I know that I'll get there."
Adande writes: "And that's one of the few times you'll ever get a sense of what Durant considers "there." Even though he didn't say it explicitly, you have to assume he was talking about Bryant's level…”
Durant and his OKC Thunder fell in the Finals as LeBron James captured his first of back-to-back NBA titles. Five seasons later, Durant is still searching for that elusive ring.
He’s still trying to find the “dog in him” that Kobe Bryant said he had years ago. He’s still growing and building upon his accolade-filled legacy. He’s overcome injuries and hardships, family feuds and criticisms for taking the supposed easy road to a c’hip.
Regardless of the journey, Durant is four wins from proving that he made the correct decision to go to Golden State, because winning a championship has always been his final impediment to solidifying himself as one of the greatest the game has ever seen,
An older, wiser, but equally deadly Durant is returning to the NBA Finals for the second time, but with a very different team than the three-headed baby boomers he came up with. His wild ride with Russell Westbrook and James Harden came a bit before its time. Who knew that Durant’s “sidekicks” would become Top 5 NBA ballers? First Harden left and became a multi-faceted All-NBA gunner, then KD came to a loaded Golden State squad, leaving Russell Westbrook to go gorilla in the mist with the triple-double parade.
When KD made the controversial move, it rubbed folks the wrong way because everyone knew that adding a player of his magnitude to a Golden State squad that had won an NBA-record 73 games would almost guarantee them an NBA Finals appearance. He became their fourth All-Star and an unprecedented addition to an established powerhouse.
Durant’s still five rings behind Kobe and the standard in the game is now exclusively LeBron James. Most would say that despite his vast individual accomplishments, Durant still has a ways to go before he can be considered in the same breath as the two best players of the last 25 years.
But Durant’s happiness has never been found in other people's opinions, and he’s paid a steep price physically to give NBA fans the effort and excellence that they are accustomed to receiving when he’s healthy. Who knows how many knee buckles, sprains or tears he can endure.
The time is now for him to get a ring and avenge his 2012 loss to LeBron.
He would have survived the gauntlet and achieved a most fulfilling victory. He’d be able to look King James in the eye, champion to champion. He'd be two rings behind King James and four rings behind Kobe. In the NBA, nothing gives a superstar more credibility and mass appeal than hoisting that shiny ball.