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What head coach Billy Donovan has accomplished with the Oklahoma City Thunder is not surprising, at least not if you watched him coach the Florida Gators for 19 seasons.
Donovan, he of back-to-back national titles and four Final Four appearances with the Gators, is on the verge of becoming one of the few in history to lead his team to the NBA Finals in his first year of coaching in the league.
What’s remarkable about the whole thing is not that he will do it in the face of tremendous doubt and even greater adversity against the franchise-model San Antonio Spurs and defending-champion, regular-season-record-setting Golden State Warriors.
Rather, Donovan will accomplish this feat by simply being himself: a leader, a confidence-builder and a coach who holds his players accountable and squeezes every drop of talent and ability out of them.
No disrespect whatsoever to Florida’s 2013-14 team, but it should be no surprise that Donovan is set to lead a pair of legitimate NBA superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to the championship series after, just two years ago, directing a team without a single current NBA player to the Final Four on the back of a 30-game winning streak and undefeated 18-0 mark in SEC play.
Durant and Westbrook have been setting the league on fire with their exciting, athletic brand of basketball since 2008. Under Donovan, they’re in their prime playing better than ever, and members of Oklahoma City’s supporting cast are literally laying their bodies on the line each night.
NBA inexperience? Pfft. Donovan went 55-27 in the regular season, posting the third-best mark in the Western Conference only behind the two teams he’s about to take down, consecutively, in the playoffs. Poor end-of-game execution? The Thunder have been closing like champions all postseason as Donovan has improved his playoff record to 11-4, nearly identical to his NCAA Tournament winning percentage at UF.
Did Billy Donovan really win two college championships? Could I win a college championship?
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 7, 2016
Billy Donovan is used to one-and-done tournaments. He scoffs at best of 7's..
— Matt Barrie (@MattBarrieESPN) May 25, 2016
Durant looking towards free agency? Let’s ponder whether he’s going to leave OKC with Westbrook, Donovan, Oklahoma City’s front office and its strong bench ready to go again next season — win or lose in June.
Donovan attacked his new job with the Thunder like he has everything throughout his successful career: methodically. The NBA has been calling for years, but Donovan did not leave Florida until he was absolutely sure the situation was right. He hired his right-hand man, Anthony Grant, as an assistant but was not stubborn enough to think he could navigate his first year in the NBA without coaches experienced in handling just that. Enter Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks.
Both Cheeks (hip surgery) and Williams (wife’s untimely passing) were forced away from the team. Top reserve Dion Waiters lost his younger brother. Oklahoma City dropped eight of 12 games coming out of the NBA All-Star break.
The referendum on Donovan had been set. He may make it to his second season, but the Thunder will be an early out in the playoffs. Durant will leave. Westbrook will depart a year later, probably for the West Coast.
How did those storylines pan out?
Donovan has been answering questions his whole career, from how he recruited five-star high school standouts while building the Gators to whether his success in 2000 was a fluke or first title in 2006 could actually be replicated in 2007.
Florida fans, as much as they love Donovan, have asked me repeatedly whether he will flame out in the NBA and return to college after two or three years — perhaps even, gasp, at Kentucky or Louisville. (Hint: He’s not going anywhere.)
It’s time to stop posing questions and start making statements.
Billy Donovan — 13 months after making the difficult but correct decision to leave Gainesville, Florida, following two decades of leading, teaching and coaching the Gators — is one win away from playing for the NBA title.
And you know what … he’s probably going to win the whole fucking thing.