OKLAHOMA CITY -- The idea was pretty obvious. In an effort to write the story themselves, the Thunder staged Kevin Durant's MVP ceremony at the team's old practice facility, a skating rink rigged on short notice to house an NBA team after the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008. Back to the place where Durant started the process and put in his work.
But two hours earlier and five miles away, Durant and his teammates were locked in an intense film session, watching tape of a brutally embarrassing 122-105 Game 1 loss to the Clippers. There were plenty of defensive breakdowns during a chaotic 48 minutes that resulted in Durant sitting almost the entire fourth quarter of a postseason game, one in which faint traces of boos echoed in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
An MVP ceremony to celebrate a wonderful season here; a playoff series and a season in jeopardy there. The Thunder, at the request of Durant, boarded a chartered bus to make the trip to the old facility together, an obvious show of unity from Durant. But it also served as a keen metaphor for the current state of the Thunder: It's Kevin Durant trying to take 14 other guys somewhere special.
Durant searched frantically all season to find an inner peace, a balance between pressing hard for something he desperately wanted for himself while maintaining a team-first approach. Durant’s dedication to his game is almost legendary, putting in countless hours on the most rudimentary things. But by his own admission, that attention to every detail, that concentration on every shot, sometimes put himself in his own way.
"This is the first year I played when I didn't put basketball first,” Durant said. “I put being a man first."
The thing is, the presentation nearly took on a completely different tone. With hometown headlines running amok and his team on the brink of elimination against Memphis, Durant was pushed to a place he's never been. He was individually struggling, and even admitted that a defender was in his head. He faced the very real possibility of accepting this MVP as a spectator, not active participant, of the postseason.
His response? A defiant 36-point performance in Game 6, followed by a devastatingly efficient 33 in the decisive Game 7. Crisis averted, awkwardness avoided.
Still, his moment of individual conquest came with a cloud, one that happened a night before. One game doesn't define a series, but with a late-season defensive swoon and a difficult seven-game series that portends potential trouble, the league's newly crowned MVP wasn't able to bask in the shine of his trophy. At the moment he commemorated his accomplishment -- his ceremonial rise from second to first -- there was plenty of doubt circling his team.
Winning an MVP brings immediate validation and elevates a career, but it also adds a tremendous burden. With the assumption that he was going to be handed this, the noise was already starting a week ago. The line of thinking is pretty simple: "You're the MVP? Well, then play like it." It's an unfair expectation placed on the league's best, something LeBron James is all too familiar with. That's the price you pay, and Durant knows it.
But back to the old facility, where Durant was suited and booted with a striking indigo suit, delivering a powerful, emotional 25-minute speech in which he thanked each teammate personally for the award he was receiving. From rookie Grant Jerrett to Kendrick Perkins to Serge Ibaka to finally finishing with Russell Westbrook, it was a stirring journey around the team's locker room, providing a glimpse at Durant’s presence at the center of the organization.
"When they told me I was going to win this prestigious award, the first thing I did was go to YouTube and look at what LeBron James said, and what Derrick Rose said and I just tried to change it up a little bit," Durant said. "I wanted to come here and hit everyone in the face with what I said, so they could feel it. I wanted to leave my mark and I know it was a little long, but I felt like these guys deserved to be singled out, every single one of them because they've sacrificed for me."
Durant has always been the focal point of the Thunder's process, an organic developmental plan that, to this point, has become the model for the rest of the league. But as the struggles of the postseason become real and the triumph of getting to the 2012 Finals gets further in the rearview mirror, difficult questions will start to pile up about the validity of it all.
The reality, though, is that the so-called "Thunder Model" was never a championship blueprint. It's always been about a sustained movement that provides the consistent opportunity for success. The Thunder don't have a "go for it" mentality in the traditional sense, and never will as long as Sam Presti is in charge. Their go-for-it-ness is shaped by building a competitive roster that arrives at training camp with a shot at the trophy.
They're going for it every season. But that process will go only as far as Durant can take it.
He's only 25 years old, completing his seventh season in the league. LeBron won his first MVP at the age of 24, and didn't complete his championship hunt until 27, his ninth season. Michael Jordan won his first MVP at 24, but didn't win a title until 27, his seventh season. According to that, Durant's right on schedule to cement himself as one of the all-timers.
But playing in a market like Oklahoma City seems to create a different storyline, one in which the assumption is Durant will eventually have to graduate to somewhere bigger and better to take the next step. LeBron did that, so naturally, Durant has to follow the same path, right?
"This is a perfect place for me," Durant said. "And I enjoy being a part of something like this. Knowing coming to the arena, they're going to love you no matter what. Losing by 25 in the playoffs, or winning a Game 7 on your home floor. They're always going to feel the same way about us. And I don't want to take that for granted because the grass is not always greener on the other side."
That's easy to say today, on the biggest individual day of his career, when the positive vibes flow as freely as the tears. What if Game 2 against the Clippers doesn't go well? What if the Thunder make another second-round exit? What if the frustration begins to build and all that positive emotion and love for his teammates, coaches and front office fades?
An MVP is a considerable career achievement, that's now been checked off Durant’s list. The clock is now ticking for something else.