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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Thunder’s All-Star duo, flush with the confidence that comes with a 3-2 series lead, have no plans to bow at the altar of the back-to-back MVP.
Following Golden State’s 120-111 victory over Oklahoma City in Game 5 on Thursday, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were asked whether Stephen Curry was “underrated as a defender.” The question was prompted by Curry’s late steal on Durant, which helped seal the Warriors’ win.
As Durant began to answer, Westbrook simply started laughing at the question and covered his hand with his face.
“I mean, getting steals … that's a part of playing defense,” Durant said, before uncorking a subtle dig. “He's pretty good, but he doesn't guard the best point guards.”
While Curry has guarded Westbrook at times in the Western Conference finals, Warriors coach Steve kerr has a number of long, defensive-minded guards—including Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston—at his disposal. That depth often allows Curry to hide off the ball against tertiary offensive options like Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters.
“I think they do a good job of putting a couple of guys on Russell from Thompson to Iguodala, and Steph, they throw him in there sometimes,” Durant continued. “He moves his feet pretty well. He's good with his hands. But I like our matchup with him guarding Russ.”
This isn’t the first time Durant has taken a swipe at Curry. Last week, he suggested that Curry didn’t need to jump into the crowd after a loose ball in Game 2, but that it “looks good” when a player does so.
Curry, who has led the NBA in steals in each of the last two seasons, opted not to engage in a war of words when Durant’s comments were relayed to him.
“I've got a great teammate [Klay Thompson] that's obviously a better defender on the perimeter,” he said. “I like the challenge. I'll do my job the best I can. That's what I'm out there to do. So in those situations, I don't get too caught up in the one-on-one match-up. My job is to follow the gameplan, and I've done that the last four years of my career trying to elevate my defensive presence and do my job.”
It’s worth noting that many NBA players object to the idea of answering flattering questions about their opponents, on principle, particularly during a playoff series that is still on going. It’s also worth noting that Westbrook and Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green have also exchanged words in the press during this intense and competitive series.
So, should Westbrook have been laughing? Should Durant have been so dismissive? Probably not, although they will have the opportunity to back up their approach in a potential closeout Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday.
Curry, who is listed at 6’3” and 185 pounds, is clearly at a strength and athleticism disadvantage compared to Westbrook, who is listed at 6’3” and 200 pounds. The two players are widely regarded as two of the NBA’s top three point guards, at a minimum, with Chris Paul also in the mix. Curry won his second consecutive MVP this year, with Westbrook finishing fourth, and the two players were both selected as All-Stars and All-NBA First Team members. Curry led the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, while Westbrook finished fourth and third, respectively.
Through five games of the Western Conference finals, Westbrook has gotten the better of Curry, who has missed time during the postseason with ankle and knee injuries.
• Curry: 25.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 4.4 TO, 2.6 SPG, 42.6 FG%, 37.3 3P%
• Westbrook: 28 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 11 APG, 4.6 TO, 4 SPG, 41.3 FG%, 36.7 3P%
Curry has struggled mightily with his turnovers and hasn’t shot the ball to his full capabilities. Westbrook, meanwhile, registered a triple double in Game 4 and has been applying constant pressure to Golden State’s defense.
“One thing you can be sure of with Russell is there's going to be numbers on every category down the list,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 5. “The guy is a tornado out there. He really is. He's going to get steals. He's going to be aggressive. He's going to get to the foul line. He's going to get his shots. He's going to turn it over some because of his aggression. He's going to do all of that, and that's why he's the player he is. He's unlike anybody in the league.”
From a defensive statistics standpoint, Curry actually graded out better than Westbrook this year. Curry was a +0.96 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, ranking sixth among all point guards, while Westbrook was seventh at +0.75. Meanwhile, Curry posted a 98.3 defensive rating, nearly four points better than Westbrook (102.2).
Neither player has been selected to an All-Defensive team, and both face regular criticisms on that end: Curry’s lack of size and length are often viewed as exploitable liabilities, while Westbrook’s play-to-play decision-making and discipline are regularly questioned.
This much is indisputable: Curry is a good enough defender to play big minutes on an elite defense and to demonstrate significant progress over the course of his seven-year career. While Golden State ranked fourth in defense this year after ranking first last year, Curry’s individual defensive rating over the last two years shows marked improvement from earlier in his career.
This frank and public post-game exchange over Curry’s defense reinforced how fearlessly the Thunder approach their task of knocking off the defending champions.
To Durant, Curry’s defense has to be assessed with a major qualifier. To Westbrook, the topic is cause for some hearty chuckling. The scene recalled an episode from the 2011 Finals, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade mockingly fake-coughed to poke fun at Dirk Nowitzki, who was playing through an illness.
In that series, Nowitzki and the Mavericks got the last laugh by knocking off the Heat in six games. Here, there’s little doubt that Curry will need to outplay Westbrook for the balance of the series if Golden State is going to advance to the Finals for the second straight year.