CHARLOTTE NC - DECEMBER 21: Teammates Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma Thunder warmup before the start of their game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on December 21 2010 in Charlotte North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this Photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook survived the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, but as the NBA Playoffs unfold, the Oklahoma City Thunder's title hopes look tethered to a different question: Can Westbrook and Durant's partnership survive the postseason?
After Russell Westbrook missed a 20-foot jumper as time expired in regulation vs. the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, TNT's cameras panned to Kevin Durant talking to Oklahoma City Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks on the sidelines, and we saw Durant mouth the words to a question we'd all been asking ourselves: "Why the f--k didn't he get me the ball?"
"He" was probably the inbounder, Thabo Sefolosha. But if you thought he meant Westbrook, then you could be forgiven. Because "he" and Kevin Durant have a problem.
Don't get me wrong; the Thunder still won Monday night (full coverage of that game), and it was epic in just about every way possible. Probably the best game of the playoffs. Coming into it, you knew that if Memphis won, they'd take a 3-1 lead and probably win the series, whereas OKC just needed to survive and get back home with the series tied. The only game with higher stakes for both teams would be a Game 7, and they played like it.
The Grizzlies jumped out to an 18-point lead in the first half and looked ready to run away with things, forcing Scotty Brooks to get creative. With that, he went small and put Kevin Durant at the 4 -- guarding Zach Randolph -- and spreading the floor with shooters. It worked, too. The 18-point lead became a 4-point deficit at halftime, and from there, Oklahoma City slowly took over.
Midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like the better team would win here. OKC was up 10, and Memphis didn't have any answers. But the Grizzlies, for their part, just wouldn't die.
They had multiple prayers answered in the fourth quarter and then overtime, and the longer things went, it just seemed like Memphis was meant to be. The Grizzlies just kept hammering away, and it almost worked, but OKC wasn't going to let them steal the game. The Thunder just couldn't steal it, themselves, which is where we come back to their two best players.
Actually, this is mostly about Russell Westbrook.
Really, it all comes down to Westbrook's identity as a basketball player. And on his own, Westbrook's story has been pretty much perfect thus far in the NBA. Go to back to what Scotty Brooks said about him last week.
"He’s developed into an All-Star in three years," the coach told reporters. "Not a lot of guys you can say that played the 2-guard spot in college and only for two years and can come in and lead a team that had a bad record three years ago and become an All-Star and make the playoffs twice. ... He’s not the only player that has a bad game. He’s not going to be the only player in the future that has bad games. ... He doesn’t listen to the critics because you can’t."
He's one of the two or three most explosive guards in the league, he can takeover games for quarters-at-a-time, and when he's hitting on all cylinders, there's not much separating him and, say, the current MVP of the NBA. In a different situation, or on a team with less talent, Westbrook would be seen as the savior instead of the saboteur. He'd also be out of the playoffs by now.
That's the problem here. Westbrook can do it himself and win sometimes, but the Thunder won't win a title if that's the way he wants to play it. When he's gunning, it gives teams like Memphis a chance that they shouldn't have against a team with as much talent as the Thunder.
The problem is that Westbrook might not be built that way. The narrative's more interesting when you pit Durant and Westbrook against each other, but this about Westbrook's ability to domesticate his game for the sake of the team. For instance, all year long, ESPN's Bill Simmons has been on Twitter comparing this situation to the struggle between Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. He wrote the same thing in a column last week. And look, we may still see a friendship-ending wrestling match if Westbrook can't change his ways, but that's a ways off.
For now though, that's the wrong Wire analogy. Russell Westbrook's not Stringer, he's Bodie Broadus. The kid who can't help but be fearless and reckless and unrelenting in the face of obvious red flags. What makes him endearing to fans also makes him dangerous to himself.
What scares me about that analogy is that Bodie never really changed. Some guys are just crazy, and what makes them great drug dealers will also get them killed. That's Westbrook. His aggressiveness makes him a terror for the other team, but when it comes at the expense of his teammates, he's playing right into their hands. Like Bodie trying to take on Marlo's whole crew by himself, it's mutually assured destruction, except they have more soldiers. So... Suicide, basically.
When Westbrook takes over for Oklahoma City, that's what happens. It becomes him vs. the world. It's a testament to his talent that this doesn't automatically kill OKC's chances, but it's a testament to the realities of basketball that it kills them slowly, instead.
It's a pretty simple concept: there's no ball movement when Westbrook dribbles for the first 15 seconds of the shot clock. At that point, whether he shoots or shovels a pass to Durant or James Harden, the possession's a glorified game of one-on-one regardless.
Again, on a crappy team? No big deal. Russ could take 30 shots and make ten all-star teams. But when the player you're freezing out happens to be the best scorer on the planet, things get more complicated. The reason the Thunder have a shot at winning the NBA Title is Kevin Durant, not Westbrook. It's not a coincidence that OKC finally won when Durant took over in the third overtime.
Kevin Durant might be the best player on earth, so... Why is Russell Westbrook taking 13 more shots than the best player on earth? The popular response to this is that Durant's not getting open off the ball. Which... Okay, fine. Then force-feed him the ball.
Take your chances with Durant against good defense as opposed to Westrbrook careening into three people. Mind you, Russ' stats may look like those of Derrick Rose, but Durant's the only player on the team that can step toe-to-toe with LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and every other true assassin in this league. Who would you give the ball to?
Durant's not blameless here. Save for emotional outbursts like the one caught by TNT's cameras Monday night, Durant's not going to set Westbrook straight like a more established superstar might. Westbrook's one of his good friends off the court, and KD's not the type to take to the media to plead his case. It'll take a playoff exit to wake him up to what's going on here.
Even the Thunder's coach doesn't seem to get it. Brooks said after Game 4 that Kevin Durant led the league in scoring because Russell Westbrook always finds him. Which makes perfe--Wait, he really said that? Does he think we haven't seen the past month of Thunder games?
Kevin Durant could drop 30 with ME playing point guard. If anything, Durant won the 2011 scoring title in spite of Westbrook. Durant did a great job sharing the scoring load all year long, and never made an issue out of Westbrook's tendency to monopolize possessions.
But in the playoffs, where possessions matter more than ever and things get tight for everyone, It's either dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-pass or dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-shoot, and either way, we're not talking about actual offense. And as much as I want to see OKC succeed, they're probably doomed if they don't figure this out at some point.
And really, I don't hate Westbrook. It's just... From an objective standpoint, he A) takes too many shots, B) doesn't feed Durant as much as a point guard should and C) kills the offense in the fourth quarter of close games. This is what I wrote in my playoff preview:
With Kendrick Perkins on board, [OKC is] suddenly able to guard any team in the league, and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook firing away on the other end, they can still outscore anyone. Suddenly, they've become a juggernaut.
Adding Perkins was like giving ritalin to a team with ADD. Before, there was a lot to love about the Thunder, but there was always something a little off. Like, enough raw talent to be optimistic about the future, but not quite enough coherence to bank on them now. Perkins changed all that; the team makes sense now. The lineups make sense, the defensive matchups make sense, and on offense, they still have the raw energy that made them so intriguing to begin with. The only question mark is Westbrook, who, naturally, still plays like he's got unmedicated point guard ADD.
Right now, Oklahoma City's the most talented team left in the West. Dallas played out of their minds against L.A., but they'll come back to earth. Meanwhile, OKC's the only team with a real shot of beating the Heat, the favorites back East. Westbrook's still the question mark, though.
Only now, his point guard ADD has gotten worse at the worst time possible.
It's not something you can hold against Westbrook, because this is who he is, and if he's ever going to evolve, it's still really early. But judging Westbrook is beside the point. For Durant and the rest of the Thunder, the time is now, and it's come much earlier than anyone expected. This is their chance, and if they blow it because Westbrook can't get it together and be the point guard his team needs, it won't be something that Durant will forget. He shouldn't forget it.
If nothing changes with Westbrook, losing is inevitable, and conflict's unavoidable.
At some point, watching the Thunder in these playoffs will leave you pulling your hair out and screaming at Westbrook. "WHY THE F--K DIDN'T HE GET DURANT THE BALL?"