OKLAHOMA CITY — As famous returns go, it probably fit in somewhere between the swallows to Capistrano and MacArthur striding ashore at Leyte.
There was ballyhoo, bombast, boo birds, barbs and, in the end, cupcakes.
Kevin Durant’s comeback to the home where he helped build the Thunder into a championship contender saw him finish the night doing just about everything except lick the icing bowl clean.
It was another 34-point, nine-rebound, 12-for-21 shooting show in Golden State’s 130-114 win to remind the city that used to embrace him exactly what had been ripped from the guts of its team when he chose to bolt for the already-loaded Warriors.
The fans came early and full-throated and got in their digs at every opportunity. They said he was weak and that he was a traitor. They shouted that he was a choker in big games and that he betrayed what they believed was the loyalty they should have earned from him over the previous eight seasons.
Of course, citizens of Oklahoma City never seem to share that compassion for the good folks of Seattle, whose team and star player they did steal away after Durant’s rookie season. But that’s a story for another night.
This was a tale of cupcakes that had been baking since Durant made his decision to leave way back on the Fourth of July. That is when former running mate Russell Westbrook responded to the news by tweeting a photo of several plates full of the little delectables.
The background is that when Kendrick Perkins used to play in OKC, he often called anyone that he perceived as being soft “a cupcake.” Durant and Westbrook embraced that label and did carry on the tradition.
So there were hand-drawn signs and cut-out photos of cupcakes in virtually every section of Chesapeake Energy Arena. One young girl made her way through the aisles dressed up as a cupcake with legs.
“Cupcake! Cupcake! Cupcake!” they derisively chanted at Durant all through out the game.
They called him a coward when Durant took the floor for his warmups wearing a pair of headphones, even though he does that before every game.
“He doesn’t want to hear us!” one man shouted.
“Hey, Mr. Cake! You’re soft and sweet!” said another.
They booed him with a jet engine’s roar when the starting lineups were announced and they booed him when Durant came off a screen, caught a feed from Draymond Green and smoothly nailed his first shot of the game from the left elbow.
“I expected them to be loud and cheer for their team,” Durant said. “I’ve been called worse in my life, man. I’ve been counted out since before I was even born, so this isn’t anything new.”
It didn’t quite have the vitriol of Dec. 2, 2010 when LeBron James made his return to Cleveland after he chose to “take his talents to South Beach.” There were fights between opposing sides of the debate in the stands that night. Somebody even threw a nine-volt battery out onto the court.
“I thought it was pretty similar,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who broadcast that game for TNT. “That one night have been a little nastier. Yeah, I remember that well. Similar. But I think a lot of those people who were burning LeBron’s jerseys when he left were at the parade last year in Cleveland when they won. It’s sports.
“Sports fans are emotional, as they should be. You get attached to players. You get attached to teams. Things happen. Players leave. Players get traded. Players retire and there’s always emotion. That’s why people care. You care about the guys you connect with and they care out K.D. deeply here. He cared about them.”
After the Warriors built a 26-point lead, sparks finally flew with 4:25 left in the third quarter. As the players walked off the court for a timeout, Westbrook barked at Durant: “I’m coming!” Durant shrugged his shoulders and screamed back: “So what? You’re losing!”
It was 2 1/2 minutes later when Durant got up a full head of steam at mid-court and drove fiercely toward the basket. He was fouled by Andre Roberson, was sent careening into the stanchion and came up shouting. Durant and Roberson literally went head-to-head, drawing off-setting technical fouls and ratcheting the intensity level up to DEFCON 1.
“I mean I know Dre. It’s all in the game,” Durant said. “None of this is going to seep off the floor. It’s part of the game, and I respect that. We should have just kept playing; I don’t think they should have reviewed anything. Hard foul, (expletive) talking, all that stuff is a part of the game. That’s what makes the game fun for us.”
Teammates Green and Stephen Curry both came out of the locker room for their post-game interviews wearing t-shirts with a giant cupcake on the front and big grins on their faces.
“That (jawing) is what it’s all about,” Green said. “At the end of the day, it’s all basketball. Things have happened. Obviously everybody has their differences…But no harm, no foul. You talk trash on the court. It’s a competitive game. K.D.’s super competitive. Russell’s super competitive. At the end of the day, I think it’s fun. I enjoy it.”
Durant and Westbrook downplayed their emotional investment in the encounter again. But the truth is that both of them likely needed to finally pop the cork and blow off their steam after seven long, circumspect months of tip-toeing around each other. Westbrook went off for 20 of his 47 points in the explosive third quarter and Durant scored a dozen. In three games against his ex-teammates this season, Durant is averaging 37.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and shooting 40-for-61 (.656).
It was primal scream therapy for the OKC fans who know that while the Westbrook circus can ring up triple-doubles and keep the Thunder in the playoff picture, their championship hopes went out the door with Durant.
For Durant, it was at last the time to come back to OKC and rip off the Band-Aid from all of the raw feelings he’d left behind.
What if they hadn’t lost that fourth quarter lead in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals? What if the Thunder hadn’t blown that 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series to the Warriors? Would he still have taken flight to Golden State?
“I don’t know,” Durant said. “Yeah, I don’t know. I am looking forward, not looking back.”
Let them eat cupcake.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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