Kevin Durant may be trying to shake his spotless image, and his early steps into the postseason prove his Oklahoma City Thunder companions are willing to enact the sliminess it takes to win.
Becoming No. 1 comes with a nastiness.
Durant took step two of 16 in Oklahoma City’s title quest with a 105-102 Game 2 victory that required some dirtiness against the Houston Rockets Wednesday night.
It didn’t come without the help of hired muscle.
If the NBA postseason is a turf war, Durant wants to be the new Godfather.
Durant told Sports Illustrated in a piece published Tuesday:
I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.
That’s right, Durant wants to be the mob boss—and he has surrounded himself with muscle and attitude.
Of the league's top nine culprits in technical fouls, three start for the Thunder: Russell Westbrook (15), Kendrick Perkins (12) and Durant (12).
Against the Rockets in the first round, the Thunder are revealing a dark side, an ability to battle. Durant scored 29 points and tallied nine assists, but his teammates filled a level of aggressiveness that's not found in the box score.
Perkins is the meanest and dirtiest of all the Thunder players.
That's why he was brought in, to be the enforcer. He even smashed former teammate James Harden as he broke through the lane.
His toughness cannot be undervalued. In the postseason, when halfcourt sets and interior play matters most, Perkins doesn't allow easy baskets. He's a huge part of OKC's success since arriving from Boston in the Jeff Green trade.
In one crucial moment, as the Thunder led 98-97 with just more than a minute remaining, Durant drove and found Thabo Sefolosha on the wing for a wide open three-pointer.
But there was a reason he was so open. Watch Perkins grab Chandler Parsons' arm as the Rockets forward attempts to move out to the shooter:
And those little things happen all the time; it's rare that cameras pick up every small grab, pull, punch and trip that can go on in any given play.
But enemies aren't just made through just muscling opponents. The other half of the Thunder's mean streak includes the combative personality of Westbrook.
The temperamental spunk of the Thunder’s elite 24-year-old point guard can’t be ignored. Westbrook isn’t friendly—his attitude can take him out of games mentally, but it also creates melodrama on the court that he thrives in.
Wednesday night, Westbrook found incentive after his knee was side-swiped by Patrick Beverley in the second quarter. Westbrook went to the floor and popped up angrily, spewing a stank eye toward his opponent.
On a play soon after, Westbrook went to the ground on a Beverley foul and when the Rockets guard attempted to help him back up, Westbrook knocked his hand away.
That's the sass that wins.
Westbrook has the ability to turn anger into on-court passion that drives him, as seen in this steal on Beverley amidst the drama:
Sometimes, it is the team willing to stand up to the world together that jells together best. Ibaka got punked on when Houston's Greg Smith dunked and barked in his face.
Ibaka, who led the NBA with 3.03 blocks, has no reason to be embarrassed. But if he did, he even had social media muscle there to back him up—by guess who:
These guys aren't afraid to go up against anyone.
While this is not to compare Oklahoma City to the Bad Boy Pistons of the '80s with Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman, the Thunder are bringing a toughness to the early part of the postseason.
The Thunder will need to play with that chip to move past pestering teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
It's going to take some dirt. If Durant is struggling with being "not nice," he has guys around him in Perkins and Westbrook who can still carry him to the top.
He may be dirty when he gets there, or he may remain clean while the other guys muddy their hands.