Saturday, May 17, 2014
5/17/2014 06:40:00 PM | Posted by Snottie Drippen | Edit Post
|KD picking up Russ, as Russ does the same to him and the Thunder from time to time.|
In game 5 in Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena, we witnessed the full range of the human experience. Excitement, consternation, anger, exhilaration, disappointment, hope, confusion, awe, and soul crushing defeat took their turns as millions tuned in to the controversial, thrilling, breath-taking 105-104 Thunder win. The victory put OKC one game from the Western Conference finals, shifting the pressure squarely on the shoulders of Chris Paul's Clipper squad.
Something else also shifted, however imperceptibly. As the world watched the best scorer in the NBA inexplicably sputter for 40 of his 42 minutes, as Russell Westbrook battered and blazed his way to the rim over, and over, and over, the game seemed to morph into a microcosm of the playoffs as a whole, maybe even their 6 year partnership on the hardwood.
Durant did what Durant does for the first 3.5 games of this series; he's a combination of size, mobility, and scoring touch unlike anyone seen. But there's a flipside: unlike every other big time scorer that preceded him, Durant has something that society reveres but may be an impediment to him on the court: KD has a conscience.
Being a conscientious player who'd rather make the right play than say "fuck it, I'm shooting" is why LeBron was unfairly castigated (until he won 2 rings playing his way, shutting the "ZOMG he no killah he nevuh win" crowd up). Michael Jordan and his facsimile, Kobe Bryant, had the memory of goldfish and the mindset of barracudas on the court: They could be 5 for 19 on the evening, but when it's time for that last shot, they're licking their chops and letting it fly just as confidently as if they were in the Zone. With advanced analytics, efficiency is at the forefront more than ever, but the atavistic mind, the Neanderthal inside of us all still yearns for the gunslinger, the explosive talent who doesn't give a shit if it's a good shot or not and just wants to set the world on fire.
LeBron and Durant are something altogether different, for altogether different reasons. LeBron knows exactly what the limits of his vast array of talents are, and plays within those limits, be it slick passing or getting into a scoring groove and riding it to 61 points. LBJ wants to get to HIS spots, take HIS shots, and if he sees, say, Mario Chalmers in a better position to help the team, the ball is out of his hands like a rocket, sent to the exact right coordinates. If James doesn't have his offense clicking, he's simply not going to jack up shots to "get it going". In theory this is the pinnacle of basketball evolution: an otherworldly individual talent with the preternatural proclivity to share the ball in the sport where teamwork is most vital.
Kevin Durant is blessed with a different skill-set that leads to the same howls from the peanut gallery. at nearly 7 foot with unlimited range and the whole Craftsman tool chest of scoring paraphernalia at his disposal, he gets buckets like most of us get lungs full of oxygen. KD rolls out of bed and already has 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting most days. The man scores from near, scores from far. But, there are odd lulls when Durant's teammates seem to forget that he's basically unstoppable, and KD doesn't seem to really mind. We see 6'4" Tony Allen nipping at his heels like a furious terrier, and we see the scoring greyhound infuriatingly standing around with Allen on his hip, then we see him looking visibly rattled when he's lucky enough to get the ball. Can you imagine Jordan, Bird, hell, even Kobe or McGrady or Vince Carter or Ray Allen confessing to the world at large that the guy he was currently locked into a 1-on-1 struggle of wills with was in his head?
Durant admitted this vulnerability, then went out and shot 41% in OKC's game 5 loss to Memphis the same day. Never before have we seen someone who has averaged 30 in a finals on 50%+ shooting, a 4 time scoring champion, struggling to score like this (of course, to add to the legend, Durant erupts for 69 points on 41 shots over the next 2 games, blowing the doors off of the Grizzlies and winning the series).
Fast forward to game 5 against the deep, deadly, Clippers. 6'1" Chris Paul made the world take note of how he switched onto 6'11" Durant in game 4 and the electric scorer promptly fizzled. It was confounding. We were watching the same guy who casually threw up 36 points nightly for a month get bullied by Mighty Mite, strange echoes of LeBron James being guarded somewhat effectively by Rajon Rondo. Game 5, the Clips are swarming Durant on the catch, mixing up looks, and the 4 time scoring champ was 3-17.
Enter the other player into the equation. If Kevin Durant is burdened with a super-ego that manifests a distaste for the "fuck it" mentality we feel a scorer needs, he's allowed the latitude to be great on his terms because of his 6'3" Id, Russell Westbrook. As (some say overly)-cerebral as KD is, Westbrook is the yin to his yang; Russ opens the throttle and guns the engine and takes off just "to see what happens", oblivious to the "no no nononono" we collectively may groan. There is no "well, maybe I shouldn't..." in Russell Westbrook's game; his play is more like his favorite hashtag on Twitter- #WhyNot?
And as I watched Durant struggle in game 5, as I watched Russell Westbrook burst by one of the best defensive point guards in the league time and time and time again, finishing acrobatic buckets at the rim or drawing fouls from the hapless Clipper bigs as he blew threw the lane relentlessly, keeping the Thunder within striking distance, I felt a slight paradigm shift. Russ sputtered in the last few minutes just as Durant caught fire, hitting 2 ridiculous 3s and scoring 10 points in the closing 4 minutes. But as Durant unabashedly showed his nerves, refusing to watch Westbrook can the 3 free throws he earned by taking (and getting fouled) on one of the worst 3 point attempts in playoff history, I reflected on Russell Westbrook's status, not only within the Thunder organization, but in the NBA landscape.
Here's where Kevin Durant is the most unique star in a pantheon of NBA personalities: he seriously doesn't care. There were times this season as Russ tried to regain his form after missing time with his knee injuries when Durant was visibly vexed by Russ' strong-headed play. Hell, we can point at numerous moments when we couldn't understand how Russ was pulling up from 30 feet or barreling into the lane while Durant watched helplessly in the closing minutes of tight games. But after those games? Poof. Forgotten. While pundits, analysts, and bloggers have long wailed and whined about how "Russ hurts Durant's game, OMG, you want Durant to shoot as much as possible, only one who stops Durant is Russ", the person who should be most upset by Russ' antics, Durant, seems the most content with Russ' antics.
Game 5 shows exactly why the Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott Brooks, and Kevin Durant's faith in the most explosive guard in the NBA never wavered. All the schemes, all the ball sharing, all the "find the open man" stuff is great. Kevin Durant's dedication to making the right basketball play is admirable, it's what we want to teach our youth.
However...Westbrook is the part of our brain that is obsessed with Shark Week on Discovery Channel, he's the chunk in our medulla oblongata that can't look away when we get a YouTube link showing a lion bringing down an antelope in slow motion. Russell Westbrook is controlled violence, he's why MMA has taken the nation by storm. For all of the love that CP3 (rightfully) is showered with for being the consummate point guard, as much as we praise lightning-quick Tony Parker and sharp shooting Steph Curry get for being speedy technicians who bend defenses with their breathtaking scoring bursts, they all pale to the what we've seen from Westbrook this postseason. Do Westbrook's 4.5 turnovers a game in the playoffs stink? Of course. Did we all gag when we saw Russ shooting 6 friggin' 3s a game versus Memphis, do we cringe at some of the "WTF?!?" shots he takes at time? No doubt. But big picture: 1) in these playoffs, Russ put his team on his back via pure aggression numerous times while the OKC offense stalled, 2) The Thunder are now heading to the Western Conference Finals again, 2 for their last 2 attempts with Westbrook healthy, and 3) the only player in NBA history to put up playoff averages in a playoff run of at least 10 games like Westbrook's 26.6 points, 8 rebounds, and 8.4 assists a game is all time great Oscar Robertson. Not Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, not Magic Johnson, not Wilt Chamberlain. Russell Westbrook.
While Durant was having a season for the ages with Westbrook sidelined, there was an insane groundswell of "are we sure OKC isn't better off without Russ?" Well, yes. We're sure. When the grind of the playoffs sets in, when the defenses dig in and make scoring a chore, when those 8 ppg guys are rendered moot by ratcheted up defense, when OKC is watching a deficit balloon and Durant can't shake loose or there's a lid on the rim for him, Rajon Rondo isn't scoring 13 straight. Steph Curry isn't putting his head down and blowing up double teams through sheer force. The paradigm shifted. There is no longer a "Batman and Robin" dynamic in OKC. There is no label of "Durant's team", Russell Westbrook's play won't allow it. There's no controversy, there's no arguments. Durant and Westbrook are the best NBA player the NBA has ever seen, split into his good side and his dark side and dropped into 2 separate individuals. We can all laud Durant as the 2nd best player in the NBA, but we have to acknowledge that Russell Westbrook, fresh off 3 knee surgeries in a 10 month span, has vaulted his way into the discussion of "top 5 player" with his ability to distort defenses with sheer overwhelming angry physicality, in the way the adroit play of "better" point guards simply can't.
Chris Paul has long been dubbed the best point guard in the league. Steph Curry and Tony Parker are oft mentioned as the 2nd and 3rd in some order, while the John Wall/Kyrie Irving/Dame Lillard trio is on the come up. But the paradigm shift is underway. Are any of these point guards doing what we've seen from Russ in these playoffs? Are any more destructive to a defensive game plan? It'll be interesting to see how we rank the point guards by December of next year.
After a season of turmoil for the OKC, Westbrook's play has got to have earned him a measure of respect that's been missing for his 1st 6 years because, because #WhyNot?