After six grueling games where blood was shed, referees were blamed and MVP awards were questioned, there sat Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the podium after finishing off the Los Angeles Clippers, 104-98, in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.
As soon as Westbrook and Durant sat down at the table, they gravitated to the stat sheet. KD pointed at a particular stat to Russ (I like to think it was Westbrook out-assisting Chris Paul, 12 to 11) and in return, Westbrook chuckled like a child for a second. It was a moment. It was kind of cute.
It also felt just a tad insensitive, like they were totally oblivious to the amount of stress they put on those watching them. Don't these guys understand that if they would just be mindful of the shooter in the opposite corner; if they just got KD to operate 18 feet and in; if they just valued the ball a little bit more; if they maybe just came up with one more offensive set that isn't a high screen-and-roll ... maybe this game could be easier for everyone involved?
If we've learned anything about the Oklahoma City Thunder over these last couple of years, they love doing things the hard way. Also, succeeding in both an insane and amusing manner when they do things the hard way. The showmanship that comes with the success, the sheer nuclear reaction after making an impossible play possible ... both feel like a treat, even if they might be overindulgent. These guys are really good.
But it's become clear that as much as Durant and Westbrook must drive the ship, the role players are vital to the team's success.
The most valuable player on Thursday night wasn't the superstar wearing No. 35, it was the rookie wearing No. 12. Steven Adams not only produced in the box score with 10 points and 11 rebounds, but he also made us all aware that he was there. The Clippers knew he was there. The fans knew he was there (ever notice the gasps and boos increase towards Adams during the series?). Those watching on television knew he was there. Adams was a force on the boards and on Blake Griffin, and it became quite clear The Big Kiwi earned his 40 minutes even after Kendrick Perkins escaped foul trouble.
Add Big Kiwi's contributions to the dynamic Reggie Jackson, the heady Derek Fisher and Plus/Minus Gawd Nick Collison, and OKC's rotation is a well-oiled machine. There's always been a challenge for coach Scott Brooks. His two superstars are so good at carrying the entire load that players 3-12 don't always get into a rhythm. It got better in spots thus far in the playoffs, and with their upcoming test versus the San Antonio Spurs, Brooks will need his bench to perform, hope that Serge Ibaka's calf injury isn't serious and find a way to keep Big Perk and Thabo Sefolosha's confidence high. Is it a lot to ask of Brooks? Maybe, but that's where we're at for a coach who's been to three conference finals in the last four years.
Things will only get harder for the Thunder from here, but when things get rough, the Thunder tend to get more defiant. KD's 3-of-17 from the field? Shoot a 30-footer next time up. Russ gets his shot blocked at the rim? Go ahead and dunk on everybody the next time down. You stopped our high pick-and-roll three times in a row? We're running it a fourth time and we dare you to stop it. We're that good and we're going to do it our way.
You can sense it when they talk after the game. You hear KD and Russ use words like "persevere" and "sticking together" repeatedly. It's like they know they're the transcendent talents meant to do unbelievable things on the court and won't stop until they do said unbelievable things. As long as KD and Russ keep sticking together and persevering, maybe they'll pull off the most unbelievable thing of all: winning a title despite their many frustrations.
Happy Hour drink recommendation: A Boilermaker. Look, we've had non-stop basketball for three weeks now and we all need a break. If you're over 21, just order this tonight and enjoy the weekend accordingly. My preference is a shot of bourbon (Four Roses Small Batch always works) and a Belgian-style blend (Three Philosophers if the wallet allows). Now, the weekend can officially begin. No basketball until Sunday, folks, so come out of hibernation, go get a haircut and hang out with your loved ones. Be a civilized human being for 48 hours, you insane basketball fan you. Enjoy.