A deft deflection, a quick sprint, a gently led pass, a two-handed slam, a yawp to the crowd.
Instead, it was LeBron James and company who had their way, dispatching the Thunder with a decisive 103-81 win and spoiling the firebrand point guard’s much-anticipated return.
Westbrook’s final line: 16 points (on 4-of-12 shooting), five rebounds, two assists and three steals in 24 helter-skelter minutes.
Considered in isolation, and given the work Westbrook put in coming back from a second knee injury in less than a calendar year, the performance was certainly impressive.
In the context of Miami’s malicious manhandling of OKC, however, the message couldn’t have been clearer: To discharge the champs, the Thunder need a fully healthy Westbrook at the helm.
For a while, it was easy to believe otherwise.
In the 26 games following Westbrook’s injury, the Thunder amassed the league’s highest net rating (7.7) and fifth-most efficient offense (108.5) en route to a 19-7 record, per NBA.com.
Key to OKC’s shorthanded success was the incendiary play of Kevin Durant. To wit: 35 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists on 53 percent shooting (including 40 percent from downtown) and a certifiably silly true shooting percentage of 65 percent.
All the while, whispers abound of Durant’s assault on King James’ as yet unchallenged MVP throne—a takeover, long held at bay, suddenly in full swing.
The handwringing began in earnest: With KD playing by far the best sustained basketball of his career, how would Westbrook’s inevitable return jeopardize or otherwise compromise the Thunder’s groove?
Such speculation glossed over a glaring aspect of Durant’s merciless destruction: that 16 of the Thunder’s 26 games had come against teams at or below .500—including eight against Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers.
Needless to say, that’s not exactly the level of competition OKC can expect come playoff time.
And that’s before considering the more pressing concern: how Durant and Westbrook will mesh in the interim.
In a recent segment on ESPN’s First Take, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith discussed that very trepidation.
Such skepticism isn’t completely without merit: According to NBA.com, the most oft-used Thunder lineup featuring both Durant and Westbrook (along with Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka) has mustered a measly net rating of minus-7.5 in 287 minutes.
Anecdotal evidence aside, the idea that Westbrook’s return will somehow sap the Thunder—and Durant in particular—of all basketball manna ignores just how dominant OKC had been before the injury.
Though the sample size is precisely the same (26 games), the numbers are arguably even more eye-popping: an offensive rating of 107.8 (third best in the league), and league-leading net rating of 10.
Oh, and a 22-4 record.
The dramatist in us might be quick to forget those first few months—and the entirety of last year—but, as USA Today’s Sam Amico recently noted, Durant sure hasn’t.
"I mean last year I was playmaking a lot," said Durant, who is averaging a career high 5.5 assists per game after setting a career-high with 4.6 per game last season. "I averaged one assist less (last season), but I was playmaking last year with Russ on the court. I had the ball while he was roaming around and vice versa. It's not rocket science, man."
Right around the time Westbrook’s return was starting to steal the headlines, another nascent dual narrative arose anew: whether or not the Heat were content with coasting into the playoffs, and how readily they could flip the championship switch.
By bludgeoning the Thunder on their home court—forcing turnover after turnover and turning them into transition terror—Miami served serious notice on exactly that front.
Now it’s up to Oklahoma City to recapture the chemistry that defined its gangbusters start.
Every contender needs a reliable secondary scoring option—that goes without saying. And though Durant will have to scale back his offensive burden in the coming weeks and months, the effortlessness with which he authored this most recent stretch will only pay dividends down the road, when the late-game crunch of playoff basketball hails for heroics.
On some nights, that is. But there will be other nights—games where the jumper is just off or the bruising bodies are coming fast and furious—when Durant will need another gunner on the tail. When he’ll need Russell Westbrook.
OKC’s lone playoff series with Russ on the sidelines: a five-game drubbing at the hands of the Memphis Grizzles in the Western Conference Semifinals last spring.
Of all the on- and off-court esoterica one can point to when positing a perspective on Russell Westbrook, those four losses—decisive, definitive and with Durant desperate for a wingman—might be the most important stat of all.
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