BOSTON -- Following shootaround on Wednesday morning, Kevin Durant tried to recall the last time he played in Boston.
"It's been a while, right?" he said, rubbing the side of his face. "I haven't played here in a while. Before this game, I was hoping that everything would go well in our last game so I could play here. It's been three years since I played [here]."
It might have been three years, but Celtics fans certainly hadn't forgotten. With some light Boston buzz flying around about Durant's future free agency, the arena roared when his name was announced pregame. Fans even cheered his first made bucket, a wing 3-pointer. And with Durant at the free throw line in the third quarter, the section of fans behind the basket chanted, "Come to Boston!"
Even after the Thunder's particularly impressive 130-109 win over the Celtics, the first question to Durant postgame wasn't about his 28 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Or the fact the Thunder appear to be sorting themselves out after some disconcerting stumbles following the All-Star break. It was about the chant, which barely rose to a decibel level where anyone even noticed.
"I didn't even hear that, man. Promise," Durant said. "I couldn't understand what they were saying."
When a reporter explained what the chant was, Durant at least acted shocked.
"They said that?" he said. Then he thought over what to say next. "I don't know. No thoughts, really. I mean, I'm just happy we won."
So it goes for Durant as the few remaining cities on the Thunder's schedule try to make their case before he hits free agency this summer. With simple-minded questions like, "What do you think of [insert city]?" as a backhanded way to get him to say something nice, or "What do you think of [insert opposing player]?" to get him to say something nice about an opponent, the storyline trudges on. Durant is unmoved by it, especially on the floor.
But in the background of it all of late is the Thunder quietly righting themselves after navigating through rocky waters the past few weeks. On Monday, they blitzed the Blazers, leading by 30 after three quarters. And on Wednesday, they did the same to the Celtics, leading by 27 after three and as many as 30 in the fourth.
Inside the locker room, there was little to no panic when the Thunder stumbled to a 4-8 mark following the break, blowing fourth-quarter leads and slipping to teams they should have beaten. The message they kept repeating was that they actually were playing pretty well. The results are what matter, though, and the Thunder weren't producing any. But they were confident that the habits they were working to develop would eventually pay dividends. And maybe they presently are.
"I think this team is growing and learning and getting better," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "We just need to keep moving. The biggest thing is now I think this time of year is you don't want to do is go backwards. And I think the biggest thing in how you go backwards is the mental part of not coming ready to play. That's how you take steps backwards in my opinion."
There was one moment Wednesday where it looked like more of the same. After going up 20 early in the third, the Thunder slipped, with undisciplined offensive possessions popping up again. Durant hoisted an early-clock 3 that air-balled. Russell Westbrook recklessly attacked the basket and hit all backboard on a flailing attempt. Then Westbrook fired an unbalanced transition 3 with no rebounders in the area. Meanwhile, the Celtics went on a 7-0 run to trim the lead to 13. Donovan called time out.
"Coming out of the timeout, I was like, 'Hey listen, we've got to take care of the basketball, we've got to run offense and the third thing is we've got to play really good defense and rebound and not allow second shots,'" Donovan said. "If you do those things, that generally stops runs. And I think some of the previous games where teams have made big runs on us, it's been because of those things."
The Thunder always have had this tendency, primarily because of the relentless talent they possess, to try to throw the haymaker. Durant is the king of the momentum-killing dagger 3, and he often hits them. Westbrook as well. But when those shots don't fall, the floor gets tilted and it's hard to get matched up, and when you start stacking those possessions on top of each other, you blow leads.
"The big part when you want to quiet a run is we've got to settle down and run some offense," Donovan said. "The ball's going to have to change hands, we're going to have to attack the basket. We're going to have to put pressure on the basket and whatever you get from that, you're going to have to live with, but not testing those things sometimes you're living like, 'Oh wow, great shot, glad it went in' -- one of those things. I think they're getting better at maybe seeing that, and I think Russell and Kevin have done a really good job with that."
It's two games of improved play, but two games that showcase what the Thunder can do. Consistency has been their issue throughout most of the season, but at their best, they can be a monster team. The unsettling narrative that was building during the recent stretch was what Durant might be thinking as the losses accumulated.
But what might be more relevant is what he's thinking as the Thunder move ahead. Because if they can peak at the right time and enter mid-April playing at this level the questions, the speculation, the chants, might all fade out quietly, like the one he never heard on Wednesday.