Last season, Kevin Durant’s looming free agency was a constant backstory as he went from city to city with the Oklahoma City Thunder. At many stops, he was asked whether that city could ultimately become his next home.
When he came to Boston and said nice things about the area and the franchise, it created such a stir that Durant actually circled back the next day and pointed out that he would say nice things about Philadelphia, too, and that did not mean he was going to sign with the 76ers.
So Durant-to-Boston seemed like a pipedream for fans here. But then summer arrived and the Celtics were one of just six teams to secure a meeting with the superstar forward.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was part of the Celtics delegation that traveled to the Hamptons to woo Durant. And there was a growing sense that Boston had somehow made Durant’s even shorter list, along with the Thunder and Warriors.
When Al Horford agreed to sign with the Celtics as their representatives were leaving their visit with Durant, the idea of a Boston super team did not feel so far-fetched.
But Durant wiped away all of that hope with one loud, reverberating decision, as he ditched the Thunder, the only team he had ever played for, to join Golden State, a team that had just won a league-record 73 games.
In Boston, the sting was sharp because a long shot had evolved into a possibility. And then the possibility was gone, and in this city, that hurt. Fans felt as if they had been abandoned by a player who was never theirs in the first place. And that tense reality will be the backdrop on Friday night, when Durant and the Warriors come to TD Garden.
“What can [Celtics fans] be mad about?” Durant told reporters in Toronto Wednesday. “I never played there. I never said I was going there, but they’re going to support their team.
“That’s one of the best fan bases in the league, top five easily. So no matter who goes in there, they’re going to boo them. But I had no attachment to Boston at all.”
Fans were not the only ones who felt a bit jilted. Forward Jae Crowder was frustrated because the Celtics had shown Durant secrets about how they would defeat the mighty Warriors together, and then he went and joined them. Durant declined to stoke the coals when asked about Crowder Wednesday.
“I respect all these players, and if they don’t respect what I did, I can’t control that,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but love and respect for Jae Crowder and how he approaches the game or how he plays, but we disagree on me coming here. That’s just how it is.
“It’s all good. We’re going to compete no matter what.”
Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas said he was surprised that Durant joined Golden State, but he was not angry about it. He said he had moved on, then smiled and said he was unsure whether Crowder had done the same. Crowder, who continues to recover from a sprained ankle and could return Friday, was not available to speak to reporters.
Looking back, Thomas said, Durant’s excitement about the Celtics’ relentless, competitive way resonated most at their meeting.
“It was real genuine,” Thomas said. “Like, he really liked what we had going here.
“For whatever reason, he picked the Warriors. I know one thing: He wanted to have fun playing basketball, and he thought the style of play and the coaching staff we had, it was fun playing here. He loves the style of play that we played at, and we just came up short.”
Thomas said he exchanged occasional text messages with Durant last season and early last summer, but the correspondence stopped after Durant joined the Warriors. It was partly because there was no more recruiting to do, partly because Thomas did not want to bother him, and partly because the focus needed to shift back to competition.
Even without Durant’s presence, Friday’s game would likely be the most alluring on the Celtics’ regular-season schedule. Last season the Warriors came to Boston with a 23-0 record and eked out a double-overtime win despite the absence of All-Star shooting guard Klay Thompson.
Then in March, with Crowder sidelined, the Celtics went to Oakland and stunned the NBA universe by snapping Golden State’s record 54-game home winning streak.
“The whole world was watching [the game in Boston], so we probably caught people’s eye,” Thomas said. “And then when we went down to Golden State and beat them, people probably thought we were for real.”
Those were two of the most thrilling regular-season games in the NBA last year. Now there could be another one, and now it will include the superstar who decided he did not want to become a Celtic.