OKLAHOMA CITY -- All season long, the Oklahoma City Thunder have played a video with Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" right before pregame introductions at Chesapeake Energy Arena, with images of fans around the city.
On Saturday, with Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors in town for the first time, they rolled a video with fans naming towns around Oklahoma and then played the song they used all of last season: "This City" by Patrick Stump.
This city is my city
And I love it, yeah I love it
I was born and raised here
I got it made here
And if I have my way, I'm gonna stay here
The entire 2015-16 Thunder season was based around Durant and the fear of him leaving what he had built in Oklahoma. The Thunder made a coaching change, hiring Billy Donovan, in an effort to get on the front foot. They spent the biggest they ever had, going deep into the luxury tax with the third-highest-paid roster in the league. They overcame the mighty San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, then pushed the Warriors to the brink after taking a 3-1 lead. But through it all, Durant's uncertain future loomed over every game, every comment, every bit of body language, win or lose.
The Thunder played that song before every game, setting the stage for what would eventually become their pitch to Durant in free agency. They walked him in the front door of the arena on June 30 before his free-agency meetings, under his face, an illustration that this was the house you built. The Thunder hoped the pull of finishing what he started, the feeling of being the icon in a state, the pride in literally building a franchise from the ground up -- along with having an excellent team with a superstar teammate that was still young with a bright future -- would be enough to re-sign Durant.
Durant chose to leave anyway.
You can take my picture
You can take my name
But you're never gonna take my city away
'Cause you can burn it to the ground
Oh or let it flood, but it's in my blood
Last season, that part of the song wasn't relevant. But on Saturday, it was the theme of the night. Durant heard boos when he was announced in starting lineups. He heard boos every time he touched the ball. He heard "cupcake" chants when he shot free throws. He ran out of the tunnel with someone actually dressed up in a cupcake outfit. He saw signs littered all over the arena. He heard the heckles and jeers. And he dropped 34 points as he punished his former team again, with the Warriors handling the Thunder 130-114.
Louder than the boos for Durant, though, were the cheers for Russell Westbrook. He heard "MVP" chants every time he went to the line. He heard his name chanted when he squared off with Durant for a jump ball in the third quarter. He heard a fan scream, "God bless Russell!" as the pregame invocation finished. The night was as much about Westbrook and the way the organization and its fans have rallied and recovered behind him as it was about expressing themselves to Durant.
"Honestly, I used to get booed in all arenas," Westbrook said with a smile. "So, you know, the tables have turned a little bit. So, I’ve been there and did that before. So, it happens; you come and compete, and it is what it is."
Westbrook, as he does most every night, tried. Like really tried. He finished with 47 points on 14 of 26 shooting, 11 rebounds and eight assists. He had 11 turnovers too, but even those almost felt acceptable because they were a product of his effort to make something, anything, happen. He pushed to spark a run in the third quarter, with Durant guarding him, attacking relentlessly and dropping 3s. Tensions were already high, but as the Thunder closed the gap on a 26-point lead, Westbrook and Durant jawed at midcourt.
"I'm coming!" Westbrook yelled. "I'm coming!"
Durant barked back, something about how Westbrook was going to lose anyway, which he did. But in some ways, Westbrook still won the night. He had an arena full of 18,000 people ready to run onto the floor and die for him in that third quarter. Even after the final buzzer sounded, with the Thunder losing by 16, the faithful in the still nearly packed arena rose and gave their team a standing ovation.
"They're amazing. The best fans in all of sports," Westbrook said. "They're always supporting us, regardless of ups or downs, and they did a good job of cheering us on and giving us some life tonight."
The Thunder organization tried to balance the night between respecting Durant and his contributions to the franchise while also being sensitive to its fan base and players still on the roster. There were subtle nods to the fans, such as plugging Nick Collison, the player dubbed "Mr. Thunder" by Durant, into the game for short run at the end of the first quarter. There was the team jersey picked out for the game, the "Pride" alternate that the Thunder wore at home throughout basically the entire postseason. Westbrook's "Now I Do What I Want" commercial played as the teams left the floor for halftime. The Thunder saw themselves as bystanders to the situation, just extras in the movie Durant was playing out.
Now, it's over. Durant will come back again to OKC on March 20, but it won't carry the same kind of atmosphere. Saturday wasn't necessarily closure for Thunder fans, but it was their opportunity to vent. It's hard to find any that would ever say they hate -- or even dislike -- Durant, but they hated his decision. They believed in him. They supported him. They wanted him to stay. For life.
The night ended with Warriors players wearing cupcake shirts in the locker room and Westbrook, wearing an "Any Given Sunday" Willie Beamen No. 13 jersey, rejoining his family on the court. He walked off, arm around his wife, Nina, all smiles. It's his city, because he's the one that stayed here.