Kevin Durant’s conciliatory approach to his first meeting with the Thunder was met with cold shoulders, blank stares and a bright photographer’s jacket, the latest accessory in Russell Westbrook’s signature Cupcake Collection. The Warriors’ prized off–season acquisition would have to find a different way to get his former team’s attention.
In multiple interviews this week, Durant tried to extend olive branches to Westbrook, expressing regret at his impersonal method of informing his longtime running mate of his July 4decision to sign with Golden State and even suggesting that he would invite Westbrook to his wedding. Westbrook, secure and sassy in his new “Now I do what I want” autocratic role, didn’t even consider reciprocating, blowing off questions about Durant in Los Angeles on Wednesday night and taking pleasure in pointing out that media skeptics had undersold the post-Durant Thunder’s chances this year. The two superstars, who reportedly have not spoken since Durant’s break-up text message, did not play nice for the nationally televised cameras. No handshake or daps; no kissing and no making up.
Steve Kerr and the Warriors seemed to make a point of setting up a statement game for Durant. During his pre-game media session, Kerr again defended Durant from criticism over comments he felt were misconstrued. On Golden State’s first possession, Durant was encouraged to dribble into a three-pointer, which he made. And then, midway through the first quarter with the Warriors trailing and back on their heels due to an energetic Thunder start and strong early work by Steve Adams, Kerr went ballistic over a non-call in hopes of awakening his superteam.
Just when it looked like Oklahoma City’s silent rebuffing of Durant might prove to be the perfect mind game, Jerami Grant took a pass from Westbrook, dunked over Durant’s outstretched arm, and then let him know about it.
Grant, a member of the Thunder for all of two days, couldn’t know the impact of his slam or his words. When Westbrook, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and other members of the 2015-16 Thunder were contemplating how the franchise would move on without the 2014 MVP, Grant was a forgotten member of the forgotten Sixers, dreaming of winning a dozen games this year (if he was lucky). Grant also surely hadn’t accounted for the fact that Westbrook would head to the bench for his scheduled rest just 10 seconds later, leaving Oklahoma City’s green reserves to fend for themselves.
And so it was that Durant, emboldened by Grant’s out-of-turn woofing, finally got through to his former franchise. Risking criticism and burned bridges, he had joined the Warriors because of the promise of more talent, more ball movement, more clean looks and more fun. Those promises materialized one after another, as Durant scored 10 straight points to close the first quarter and helped Golden State rack up a 19-3 run while Westbrook rested.
These Warriors have been a bit uneven to start the season, but they accelerated without a hitch following Durant’s push, building a 25-point lead by halftime. Along the way, Durant had what felt like his official induction into the Warriors’ magical troupe, hitting one three-pointer and then, 15 seconds later, stepping into a second that was set up by a gaudy, left-handed, behind-the-back pass from Stephen Curry in transition. Oklahoma City had no answer. In fairness, no one besides LeBron James has had an answer when Golden State reaches that level of delight.
With Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back and the result in hand early, there were no signs of mercy from Durant. He set Grant straight with a few words of his own, exchanged blocks with Westbrook, and then engaged in a back-and-forth with Kanter that went on for so long that Adams eventually had to break it up. Kerr, surely loving the show, kept Durant in the game well into the fourth quarter, allowing him to dice up anonymous Thunder substitutes like Joffrey Lauvergne and Alex Abrines with purposeful drives and punishing slams. Those final minutes felt a bit like the first day of training camp, as if Durant was back at the practice facility in Oklahoma City, mopping the floor with the new guys to prove a point.
When he exited with a little over six minutes left to a standing ovation, Durant had compiled 39 points and seven rebounds. He had also knocked down seven of his 11 three-point attempts, which made for a stark contrast to last year’s postseason collapse. During Oklahoma City’s three consecutive closing losses to Golden State, Durant had connected on just seven of his 26 attempts from beyond the arc. More clean looks, more fun.
Durant’s onslaught, which carried Golden State to a 122-96 victory and dealt Oklahoma City its first loss of the season, only served to drive the two sides further apart. There was no post-game détente. Instead, Durant wandered aimlessly near the Warriors bench and then donned a protective towel over his head for a post-game interview. Westbrook and company headed straight to the locker room, brushing off Durant once more.
Perhaps Durant was naïve in thinking that his overtures would be accepted. Perhaps he underestimated the emotional impact of his decision on Westbrook and Oklahoma City. Perhaps he felt like showing respect to Westbrook was simply the right thing to do, or that it was incumbent upon him to take the first step to patch things up.
Whatever the case, he was treated Thursday not like a long-lost friend or a respected adversary, but as just another opponent. “When I get on the court, I don’t talk to anybody,” Westbrook told reporters afterwards, with utter dismissiveness, before sidestepping all Durant-related follow-ups.
That uncut coldness had to be jarring initially, but Durant recovered. Once he realized that the high road was closed, that it was dunk or be dunked on, block or get blocked, spout trash talk or listen to it, he gathered himself, unveiled his full arsenal, and delivered an unmistakable reply: You might not forgive me, but you won’t punk me.