OKLAHOMA CITY — It wasn’t easy to get into the media room at Oklahoma City’s practice facility back on Feb. 10.
It was a usual Friday morning practice for the Thunder. They got on the court at around 11 a.m. as reporters packed themselves into their own private entrance to the building, like a clown car act with the clowns going in the opposite direction. The room is often spacious enough: Five desk areas along with four cushier seats placed in a living room setting around a television, which is usually showing a game or ESPN or something of that nature.
It was tough to tell exactly what was on the TV Feb. 10, not because of static or poor connection. It’s not like there’s an antenna on top of the box. There was just too big a crowd — national media members, blocky camera equipment, even a pile of briefcases and backpacks in the corner — to see it the day before Golden State wing Kevin Durant returned to Oklahoma City.
National outlets wanted in on the story. Locals rarely around showed their faces for the first time since the beginning of the year.
“I get the story. People wanna talk about different things,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “And I get [last time] was the first time that Kevin was coming back from playing here. I get that.”
But the Warriors-Thunder story wasn’t as rapacious Sunday morning, one day before the season’s second and final Golden State game in OKC, a game in which Durant won't be playing.
The NCAA Tournament was cleanly playing in the media room as the players worked out behind closed doors. A few reporters watched Louisville vs. Michigan while waiting for post-practice availability. Everyone had a seat.
What a difference Durant’s presence makes. And there’s no question that’s true on the court, too, where the Warriors are starting to find their footing without the recently injured star.
“They’re really unselfish with the ball. So, any team that’s unselfish with the ball, constantly moving it, it doesn’t really matter who they put in,” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “It’s kinda Spurs-like, a well-oiled machine.”
Durant hasn’t played since suffering a grade 2 MCL sprain against Washington on Feb. 28. The plan is for doctors to re-evaluate him four weeks from that date.
He’ll travel to Oklahoma City, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters Saturday. It’s the first road trip he’ll go on since the injury. But he’ll be in suit and tie. Or in whatever street clothes he decides to wear. The boos, the cupcake chants and even the media attention have all simmered.
No Durant on the court understandably eliminates the hype, even if — from a basketball perspective — this is still the team with the NBA’s best record coming into OKC trying to complete a season sweep of the Thunder. And the absence of Durant isn’t the only modification from the previous matchup.
The Thunder’s roster has changed, too, with the additions of forwards Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Center Enes Kanter didn’t play in the most recent Thunder-Warriors game, either.
“Knowing personnel is important just based on situations that they put you in,” Donovan said. “And I think for us, we’re a little bit different.”
The fan aggression won’t tuck away Monday night, even if Durant won’t step on the court. It will channel somewhere, though it's difficult to imagine any spectacle could match the swarms of vitriol from the Feb. 11 game.
Maybe it heads to two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who churned out his best performance in weeks during the Warriors’ most recent game, a win over Milwaukee. Curry had been in one of his worst ever shooting slumps before that.
Some of it will certainly hover to power forward Draymond Green, famous in Oklahoma for his impromptu auditions for the Rockettes during last year’s Western Conference Finals.
The rest of it will gravitate around Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, who knocked Russell Westbrook to the ground on a pick-and-roll and added some extra verve to it during the season’s second meeting between the Thunder and Warriors. Pachulia stood over Westbrook while the Thunder star flattened out on the floor about 30 feet from the basket before Westbrook rose and ran it off. After the game, Westbrook said he would “get his [expletive] back,” but Pachulia didn’t play in the next meeting.
Westbrook — or whomever else — will have his chance Monday.
“When you see a team play physical, that’s the game you wanna play,” Kanter said. "You don't wanna go against, they avoid contact, they don't wanna get no contact. I don't really like that kind of game."
The theme is simply different now with Durant unable to play.
It’s about whether the Warriors can stay afloat without their arguable best player. It’s about Westbrook’s triple-doubles. He needs seven in the Thunder's final 13 games to tie NBA legend Oscar Robertson for the single-season record.
The concentration has veered from reality TV to just normal sports.
It’s the No. 1 seed in the West vs. the No. 6 seed. It’s a team only two games up for the conference’s best record against a group only two back of No. 4 in a year it wasn’t necessarily supposed to climb that high. It’s a current Most Valuable Player candidate contrast the reigning two-time MVP.
There’s no lack of drama. It’s just that the theater is coming on the court, not off it.
“I get all those things,” Donovan said. “But I think for our guys, it’s just – and I’m sure for their guys, too — it’s just going in and playing.”