'A runner-up his whole life:' How Warriors' Kevin Durant finally became No. 1

OAKLAND, Calif. – Kevin Durant gestured over to his mother and brother Monday night, holding his head high, nodding and looking into their eyes. He was the prodigal son, selected No. 2 overall in 2007 and the runner-up to LeBron James in the 2012 NBA Finals. There had been no redemption opportunity since, only the questioning of his basketball pedigree because of an offseason decision.

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Durant’s mother, Wanda, tugged at his face. Durant’s brother, Tony, had an arm around his neck. When Durant finished second in the draft and second in his first Finals, when everyone else positioned him as a tortured soul over his departure from Oklahoma City to join the Golden State Warriors, they assured him that they’d witness this night. They always told Durant that he was the NBA’s best, that he’d have his night to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“I’m first,” Durant’s mom and brother said he told them Monday night after the Warriors dispatched the Cleveland Cavaliers 129-120 to win the NBA Finals in five games.

Kevin Durant averaged 35.2 points on 55.6 percent shooting and shot 47.4 percent from 3-point range in the Finals. (Getty)

He shouted more words in the family huddle, and soon his eyes wandered toward the trophy presentation stage inside Oracle Arena for the Warriors’ second championship in three years. Durant has finally finished first in the league race for a title and his run to be the game’s best player. He refined the Warriors after a summer in which their core players – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala – dealt with the aftermath of a 3-1 downfall to the Cavaliers, a championship lost.

Durant needed the Warriors to help him reach the pinnacle as much as they required him to defeat the Cavaliers. He put forth one of the most impressive and efficient Finals performances ever, shooting 55.6 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from 3-point range and 92.7 percent from the foul line and averaging 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

The Cavaliers gave the Warriors issues in a Game 4 victory and had competitive stretches in Game 5. Yet Cleveland’s need for a third offensive creator revealed itself as the series wore on. James and Kyrie Irving shouldered the pressure as much as their greatness allowed, but on the other end Golden State had waves of options with Durant, Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala.

One year ago, Durant was eliminated by these Warriors in the Western Conference finals – stripped of another rematch against his admitted rival. Looking back, Durant understood the gravity of his decision to sign with the Warriors, the repercussions of the way everyone perceived his competitiveness and inner strength.

Five years ago, Durant hugged James in defeat, in a moment in which his old Thunder team imagined multiple shots at the Miami Heat. Oklahoma City never held up its end of the bargain because of playoff slips and injury woes.

Durant and James embraced again Monday, the sport’s best on the game’s center stage. They’ll always remember Durant as a champion now, a winner against LeBron, the proud defending champion.

“At the end of the day, nobody can take away you being a champion,” James said. “They are always going to say you’re a champion. [Durant] is just experiencing and experiencing and experiencing.”

In areas the Warriors were lacking, Durant lifted them up. In the moments Durant needed guidance, needed the leadership of champions and veterans prioritizing his acceptance into an alpha role, they buoyed him.

Significant offseason roster decisions loom for the Warriors, but for now, they all spoke of continuing this dynastic run. Curry and Durant, Green and Thompson nearing their primes, their hunger growing for more rings. For Durant’s manager Charlie Bell and his agent Rich Kleiman, the message is clear: “Whatever it takes to keep the team together.”

For all of the Warriors’ star power, the most delicate words came from Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP. Iguodala urges the stars to produce and jokes to the rookies about helping them receive higher salaries in free agency. Durant spoke late Monday about the unselfishness and sincerity of Curry, and the motivation of Iguodala.

“Andre Iguodala, he continued to preach that every single day: It’s all about the group, and if your intentions are good, then that means as a team we’re moving in the right direction,” Durant said. “Andre told me: It’s your time, go take it. No, it’s about us. It’s about us.”

Iguodala is a culture-changer for these Warriors and represents one of the voices that Durant absorbs. Durant admits now that this is why he chose the Warriors, why he wanted to immerse himself in a familial environment. Yes, his former teammate, Russell Westbrook, is the heavy favorite to win the regular-season MVP. But Durant gave up the chase for regular-season awards last July, gave up on sustaining everyone’s belief he was destined to remain in Oklahoma City.

“He was the second pick in the draft, runner-up in 2012, a runner-up his whole life,” Tony Durant said in a quiet moment a few feet away from his brother. “He’s where he belongs now. He’s first.”

Durant walked around the court inside Oracle Arena, clutching his Finals MVP trophy with a flock of security around him. His teammates all had cigars, champagne, a night of partying ahead of them in their home city. He earned this title, earned commissioner Adam Silver announcing him as a 10-year veteran, an All-Star, who has won his first ring. So Kevin Durant turned to his mom, brother and his closest confidants, and could finally scream: “I’m first!”

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