Over the past eight years, there's been an impulse around the basketball world to keep the Thunder insulated from criticism. Let Westbrook be Westbrook, this movement says. Stop trying to turn him into a point guard. Stop bringing up the Harden trade. Scott Brooks is better than people realize. Billy Donovan is better than people realize. Stop talking about Kevin Durant's free agency. It's a non-story, and everybody knows a one-year deal in Oklahoma City has always made the most sense. And the end of game stuff? KD and Russ are two of the five best players on the planet. If making it work is a problem, tell the critics this is the best possible problem to have.
This is the wrong way to appreciate Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It's relevant now because the Thunder have just had a very bad week in a very important season. It's time to take a step back.
Two weeks ago, they were at home against the Cavs and were blown off the court. Against the Warriors this past Saturday, they choked away the final minutes of what should've been a statement win at home. Against the Clippers Wednesday, they choked again.
"They were disciplined, we weren't," Durant told reporters in Los Angeles. "We’re fooling ourselves if we want to be a great team the way we’re playing."
Thursday, they went to Golden State on the second night of a back-to-back for a game that felt cruel the entire time. It was very close for most of the game, and that only made it worse. When the Thunder play the Warriors, everyone can see they have the same kind of talent. But at no point was any objective observer watching that game thinking OKC would prevail down the stretch. The Thunder were up nine points in the third quarter, and Golden State won by 15.
Now we're here. After losing six of its last eight games, OKC is currently tied with the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. Including last night, they've lost 10 games in which they entered the fourth quarter with a lead. Russell Westbrook was 7-of-23 last night. Durant had 29 points, but nine turnovers. Serge Ibaka was very good, but nobody else was worth mentioning, and that's a sentence that applies after almost every Thunder loss. Now, given the stakes for this year and beyond, there will be much hand wringing over what this week means.
For me, it means that I will watch as many Thunder games as possible. If there's a chance this could be the final three months of Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City, it's time to appreciate everything exactly what's been happening here.
Durant is a machine who turns touches into points in the most efficient way possible. Westbrook plays like he's trying to prove the whole world wrong every time he drives to the rim. Durant is surgical; he can drop 40, but he'll glide gently through the defense and the other team won't feel a thing. Westbrook is diabolical; when it's his turn to use the knife, you feel everything. Durant is a joy to watch for anyone who looks to the NBA to see the most graceful, impossibly gifted athletes in the world. Westbrook is a joy to watch for anyone who looks to the NBA for the most explosive plays possible from characters that other sports simply can't match.
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But to really appreciate Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City, you have to admit the critics are generally correct. The James Harden trade was a disaster. It's not clear that this team has ever had a coach who can take them to another level. They signed Enes Kanter, traded for Dion Waiters and drafted Mitch McGary—none of which has made any sense.
Another glaring issue: Westbrook's not a true point guard. It doesn't matter how many assists he averages, or how many triple doubles he puts together in the regular season. He's still not going to look natural getting Durant open looks late in the fourth quarter. In critical moments against the best teams in the league, that matters. It's not a coincidence that it's been eight years, and the only time the offense has ever made sense in critical moments was when James Harden was running pick-and-rolls.
It's also not some fluke that Durant turned into an MVP when he spent six weeks playing on his own a few years ago. Westbrook turned into a monster in his own right when Durant went down. Look at these Westbrook lines from a year ago:
• 1/21 @ WSH — 32 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds
• 2/2 vs. ORL — 25 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds•
• 2/4 @ NO — 45 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds
• 2/6 vs. NO — 48 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds
• 2/11 vs. MEM — 24 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds•
• 2/19 vs. DAL — 34 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds
• 2/21 vs. CHA — 33 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds
• 2/22 vs. DEN — 21 points, 17 assists, 8 rebounds
But it's so cool that we get to watch them try to do it together. It's one of the best live live basketball experiences. Watching Durant up close means coming to grips with just how big and impossible he really he is. God created another Kevin Garnett, but decided to give him a guard's handle and a Hall of Famer's jumper. And then at the same time, watching Westbrook means coming to grips with someone who can push themselves that hard every night without bursting into flames. It's like Durant prompts these spaced out questions about basketball evolution, and then Westbrook is the human shot of adrenaline to jolt everyone back to the present. It's two drugs at once.
Now there's at least a chance that all this will change. As Marv Albert intoned halfway through the Warriors game, these stakes hang over everything: "The question is, will he follow along the lines of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and spend his entire career on one team? Or will he look to make a move? And will it depend on how successful the Thunder are this season?"
Durant really might leave. Probably not for Washington or Miami like some originally predicted, but maybe for Golden State, or L.A., or New York. Anything is possible, and halfway through the fourth quarter Thursday, I started thinking about what he could be leaving behind.
Durant and Westbrook have been playing together for eight years now. Their rise happened just as basketball took over the internet and the sport became more exciting than it's ever been. This is not entirely a coincidence. The internet took basketball to higher place, and with a combination of highlights, neverending arguments, and various fashion choices, the Thunder have been the best possible team for the basketball internet.
But their greatest trick has nothing to do with the internet: Outside of last season's injury nightmare, this team has .687 winning percentage dating back to Obama's first year in office. Even as outsiders make valid points about everything this team has done wrong, Durant and Westbrook have been so spectacular that it works better than almost anything in the NBA.
Don't appreciate the Thunder because of Vines or funny outfits, appreciate the Thunder because they are the simplest, most elemental version of what makes sports worth watching. Every night, and every season, is a new opportunity to watch Westbrook and Durant try to be so great that nothing else matters.
On TNT last night, Inside the NBA told us that Thursday was Golden State's 31st game this season with at least 30 assists. The ball flies all over the court for the Warriors, just like it does in San Antonio. Then Charles Barkley asked the set, almost mournfully, how many times Oklahoma had 30 assists.
Ernie Johnson came back from the commercial break, and said, "And the answer to Chuck's question, four times for Oklahoma City with 30 assists."
"Not good," Barkley warned.
He's right. It's hard to argue with several seasons of a late-game offense that hasn't clicked in the most critical moments. This week is further proof. There are fundamental flaws in Oklahoma City.
But this week is also a reminder to be amazed that this has almost worked. Westbrook may not be the "true" point guard feeding Durant in fourth quarters, but he's been so good that he's fundamentally changed how the NBA views his position. Durant may prefer iso-ball to playing like the Spurs and Warriors, but he also turns iso-ball into its own art form every night. Durant and Westbrook may have looked dejected this week, but it's March, not May. Would you want to play this team in a seven-game series?
Nobody knows how this ends. Playoffs questions and free agency psychoanalysis can wait. I just know that if there's a chance this all falls apart this summer, it only makes me more excited to watch Durant and Westbrook try to hold it together one last time.