OAKLAND, Calif. -- With big white Beats headphones on over his ears, Kevin Durant went through his pregame routine some 50 minutes before tipoff as a couple of his former teammates warmed up about 50 feet away. On the other end were Nick Collison and Kyle Singler, with everybody on the floor locked in on their warm-up, seemingly oblivious to who was occupying the opposing side.
Durant finished up and turned to walk into the tunnel to the Golden State Warriors locker room. As he made his way by, he passed Collison, who was Durant's teammate longer than anyone else, who was on his way by to OKC's locker room. The two had a brief but pleasant exchange, and Collison walked away laughing.
Durant walked into the tunnel and started signing autographs for the many people hanging their caps and shirts and jerseys over the railing. He abruptly stopped. He turned back to the court, pushed his headphones behind his ears and jogged across the floor to the Thunder's bench area. He found assistant coach Mark Bryant, who has been with the Thunder since 2007 and coached Durant for nine seasons. The two talked, and Durant gave his former coach a big hug. Durant then found Angela Charlton, a team doctor, and spoke for a moment. He then talked with Brian Davis and Michael Cage, the Thunder's local TV broadcast announcers. He seemed to be searching for more, but most everyone with the Thunder already had vacated the court.
It was simple. It was subtle, and it appeared to be spontaneous. Durant returned to the tunnel and started signing autographs again, but it was an entirely different pregame scene from the first meeting on Nov. 3. Durant and Collison shared the same space pregame as well that night, but neither so much as shot an innocent glance the other's way. On that night, Durant didn't speak with any of the Thunder's staff or players. It was tense and uncomfortable. Wednesday's meeting was less so.
"It's good to see everybody," Durant said after the game, a 121-100 romp over his former team in which he scored 40 points on 16 shots. "Once the ball is tipped, you’re just playing. You’re just hooping. It’s as simple as that, but it’s definitely good to see everybody.”
What hasn't changed, though, is the palpable tension between Durant and Russell Westbrook. There weren't any subliminal fashion statements this time around, unless the bright yellow sweatshirt Westbrook was wearing was a former gift from Durant or something, but there was plenty of on-court acrimony. Neither acknowledged the other before tipoff, with Westbrook staring straight ahead at nothing in particular as Durant walked around nearby. The two appeared to exchange words in the third quarter following a crossover by Durant on Westbrook, which would have been the first time they had actually spoken since Durant's decision in July. Westbrook, however, said there was no such talk.
"What exchange?" Westbrook said. "You need to sit closer to the game; maybe you didn't see it clearly."
Durant clearly had a mind to try to begin mending fences Wednesday, but there might not be anything to repair the relationship with Westbrook. That connection was severed when Durant made his decision, leaving the bond they had built behind -- he liked to call Westbrook "his brother" -- to join the Warriors. There are a lot of layers to Westbrook's hard feelings, but regardless of where they stem from, he's not going out of his way to let them go.
That's a far easier thing for Durant, because he's the one who left. Westbrook is the one who was left. He's the one who has unanswered questions. He has fueled his entire career from Titanic-sized chips on his shoulder, some manifested and some not, using any slight or doubt as motivation. This triple-double campaign is the season of vengeance for him, a full-on statistical reckoning as he tries to carry a franchise left reeling from its foundational piece abandoning it.
Wednesday's game was more competitive than the first meeting, with the Warriors pulling away late in the third quarter, overwhelming the Thunder with their offensive light show. Westbrook got his triple-double; Durant scored a season high. The event overall was toned down, with the hype, energy and anticipation of the November meeting nowhere to be found. Westbrook wasn't asked a single question about Durant after the Thunder's morning shootaround Wednesday. Durant didn't even speak with reporters at the Warriors' shootaround.
All of that will change the next time. Durant will have many more familiar faces to see and likely will be confronted with a whole new level of internal conflict when he returns to Oklahoma City on Feb. 11. There will be fresh emotions, going from that routine pregame warm-up into the visitors locker room for the first time. He'll walk into an arena that unrepentantly backs Westbrook as the Durant antihero and will face what surely will be an uncomfortable reception.
Durant appears intent on trying to put some of it behind him. The way he snapped around and headed for the Thunder bench before the game was a conscious decision to try to stomp out some of that tension. It was the first, albeit small, olive branch. There was less trash-talking, less strutting and celebrating and more business and basketball. It will take a lot of time to heal the Thunder's wounds, if ever, but Wednesday was at least a step in that direction.