After title and Finals MVP, KD on a new mission: 'Now I have to test my ceiling'

OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant had spoken to his coach late Monday afternoon, informing Steve Kerr he would defend LeBron James in the final moments. Durant has become emboldened to maximize his individual gifts, a season after a sense of validation and security of status came with the Golden State Warriors’ NBA championship. So Kerr accepted Durant’s request in the Golden State Warriors’ Finals rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a Finals MVP continuing to test his limits and capabilities on Christmas Day.

Durant had gone for 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the Warriors’ 99-92 win Monday, and added two steals and five blocks, elevating him to the league lead in blocks at 67 over Indiana center Myles Turner (64). Durant admits he grew up watching legends in Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett, and even a current peer in James, cry after winning NBA championships, but Durant’s title provided no outward emotional display. Did he have untapped emotion? Where was it? Durant stood in a quiet part of the Warriors’ locker room late Monday afternoon, delving into his own intuitions and admitting he hadn’t played for emotionally powered reasons.

“I’ve always been free, but coming here allowed me to unlock parts of my game,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I knew I had certain abilities, but I wasn’t as confident in it. That’s why you play the game.

Kevin Durant, challenging LeBron James at the rim, has committed to turning himself into a defensive titan. (Getty)

“Nothing’s changed, and it’s weird because all I’ve seen is emotional moments. … ‘Anything is possible,’ with KG. MJ on the floor crying, ’Bron crying after he won for Cleveland. KG waited [13] years to win. MJ’s father died before one of his championships, and he was crying. ’Bron cried after he brought one back to Cleveland, where he grew up and he left and came back. For me, I didn’t have the incentives coming into the championship. I had no incentives. It was strictly basketball.

“Once we got it done, I sat back and reflected and patted myself on my back a bit. I worked hard for this. I enjoyed seeing it all come to fruition and now I have to test my ceiling.”

These Warriors are banged up and without Stephen Curry because of a sprained ankle, searching for motivation amid the inevitable complacency of a potential fourth consecutive Finals run. Around the organization, there’s hope the course of the season will eliminate the bad habits — the sloppy play, as Kerr often states — as the lulls of a long year subside.

It’s unmistakable that games such as Monday’s break up those lulls, with the Warriors facing a more balanced Cavaliers roster with Kevin Love (31 points, 18 rebounds) at center and Jae Crowder and Jeff Green providing defensive versatility. James, for his part, is playing at an MVP level. The Cavaliers also are nearing the return of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, a dynamic playmaker who could turn the tide in a potential rematch in June, not to mention when these two teams play in Cleveland in one month.

Whether it is because of Curry’s right ankle injury or Draymond Green’s right shoulder injury, Golden State has worked to prioritize the season’s second half. When Curry’s MRI results on the ankle sprain returned with no structural damage, the process of rehabilitation began with no rush. Green had second opinions on his shoulder too, yet returned to anchor the Warriors’ defense, posting a triple-double of 12 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists on Monday.

Those around Durant say his defensive spirit has been the product of self-introspection, a personal challenge. His championship a season ago may not have given him new freedom on the court, but a flexibility to experiment without external critique. Sometimes when one of Durant’s closest friends, Quinn Cook, walks into Durant’s home he see the All-Star zoned into his laptop, headphones on and blurting opinions about a certain game, about defenders and traits that make them great.

“He’s so locked in,” Cook, the Warriors’ two-way player, told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve never seen somebody so locked in at all times. I’m at his crib all day. He’ll have his headphones in just watching videos and highlights. We’ll watch full games together, no matter the hour of the day.”

Ask Durant, and the defensive shift started late in his Oklahoma City tenure and has peaked in the Bay.

“The defensive aspect has evolved because of me being a student of the game, wanting to be great at every part of it,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I knew that was the next step. That was hard for me as a scorer in my career, focusing on defense every single possession. Nobody told me I need to work on my defense, but it was a matter of me thinking about it every possession.”

The perfecting of his craft continues, a basketball mind centered on the next play, the next game, when his past heroes had cried post-championship. No emotional displays for me, Durant said late Monday afternoon, and perhaps that has made him more lethal than ever. “There’s no, ‘Man, my life is better, I’m free,’” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “This is just showing me that my formula works, and for how I play, this team works.”

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