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Kevin Durant Can't Take Back Seat to Russell Westbrook Now

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Kevin Durant Can't Take Back Seat to Russell Westbrook Now
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Russell Westbrook can only be Russell Westbrook if it doesn't come at the expense of Kevin Durant being Kevin Durant.

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to disprove the notion that Durant and Westbrook are better off together than they are separate. Their on-court relationship is complex. Some don't want it to exist. Some think it's destined to fail.

Failure is an option at the moment. The Oklahoma City Thunder trail the Memphis Grizzlies 3-2 in their best-of-seven series, finding themselves one game away from a startling and unacceptable first-round exit.

The issues are obvious. Though Durant has found ways to contribute on the glass (9.8 rebounds) and as playmaker (four assists), he's been reduced to a rather inefficient scorer against the pesky Tony Allen—which goes against everything his game represents—and is prone to extensive vanishing acts.

Durant is the MVP favorite who has pushed the boundaries of understanding between volume and efficiency. He is not meant to become a bystander at any point, specifically late in games.

Yet for much of this series, that's exactly what he's been. When the Thunder have needed him to be Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook has been Russell Westbrook instead, and the ill-starred, potentially postseason-ending results speak for themselves.

 

Russ Being Russ

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Playing alongside Durant hasn't changed Westbrook one bit during this series. He's still the same, shameless chucker he's always been. And that's fine.

But only to a point.

The Thunder, Durant included, will insist that Westbrook needs the unconditional green light. Durant is particularly sensitive to the idea that he and Westbrook cannot coexist. It's been that way for years, and it's the same way now.

"He paused momentarily before offering an answer, shooting a look of mild irritation—disappointment, almost —which probably said more than his comments," USA Today's Sam Amick wrote in February:

Durant has always had that protective, big-brother sort of thing when it comes to Westbrook, and it's one of the many admirable traits that come with one of the most humble stars in all of professional sports.

Indeed, there is a certain pleasantness to how much respect Durant has and how much loyalty he exhibits for Westbrook. That, however, doesn't make Westbrook perfect or their dynamic fine and dandy.

Right now, it's not. It's not fine; it's not dandy. Things need to change.

Westbrook has attempted an equal number or more shots than Durant three times through the last five games. The Thunder are 1-2 in those contests.

On some nights, Westbrook needs to shoot more. No use blathering on about his shot selection and volume if he's making them. 

Only he's not making them.

While Westbrook is averaging 25.4 points per game, his numbers are coming on 34.4 percent shooting overall and 18.4 percent shooting from deep. In Oklahoma City's Game 3 loss, he hoisted 13 three-pointers. 

Thirteen.

Why, in the name of all that makes any kind of sense, is a career 30.5 percent three-point shooter—who is making less than a fifth of his long-range shots during the playoffs—letting 13 deep balls rip against one of the league's best defensive teams? (He made four.)

Overtimes have been the worst. Through four extra periods, Westbrook has been bad. Oh so very, very bad:

Meanwhile, Durant is hitting 50 percent of his shots in overtime, though he's only 1-of-5 from three-point range. Think the Thunder would make an effort to get him more touches than Westbrook? 

Nope.

Durant and Westbrook have attempted the same number of shots in overtime (14), despite the latter having yet to hit one. Because that makes sense.*

(*It doesn't make sense.)

Game 5 was the epitome of this relationship. Both Westbrook and Durant struggled from the field, each of them hitting only 10 of their shots. The difference is, Durant's 10 makes came on 24 field-goal attempts while Westbrook's came on 31. It took him seven more shots to make as many as Durant.

What happened in the fourth quarter was a true injustice. Durant hit a go-ahead three-pointer with just under seven minutes to play and was seemingly ready to take over. And then, nothing.

Jeff Caplan of NBA.com provided a nice breakdown of Oklahoma City's offensive, well, breakdown: 

Yet to discover his rhythm this series, Durant buried a deep 3-pointer with 6:46 to go in regulation that gave OKC its first lead of the game, 79-78. The crowd erupted and seemed to sense an elusive Durant scoring binge brewing at just the right time. Only he never got the chance. ...

Durant didn’t get a shot off on 12 consecutive possessions. He touched it only three times. Meanwhile, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Westbrook combined to miss five of six 3-point attempts. The one Butler made, he was also fouled and converted the Thunder’s third four-point play of the series, without which, this series wouldn’t be the overtime bonanza that it is.

Shoot-first point guards still have a responsibility to involve their teammates. No way, no how should Westbrook allow Durant to attempt zero shots in 12 consecutive possessions with the game and Oklahoma City's season on the line.

Thanks to the NBA's player-tracking data, ESPN's Tom Haberstroh found out the following:

The ball has been sticking like glue this postseason. Westbrook's NBA-high ball-hogging rate has now crept up in the postseason, and he's shooting 34 percent from the floor and 18 percent from downtown. His average time of possession is by far the highest of any point guard this postseason.

And now the Oklahoma City Thunder are one loss away from a first-round exit. ...

So far in this series, the Grizzlies have tallied almost 500 more passes than the Thunder. According to SportVU cameras, the Grizzlies have 1,717 passes, compared with the Thunder's total of just 1,239. And it's not getting better. Tuesday marked the widest gap of the series as Memphis moved the ball 393 times while the Thunder registered just 253 -- a difference of 140 passes.

When asking yourself whether Westbrook is to blame for Durant's offensive exclusion, don't think too hard for too long. The answer is an unequivocal, holy-moly, this-can't-be-for-real yes.

To that end, Durant cannot let that happen either. His alpha-dog mentality has been questioned repeatedly, much of said doubt superfluous and irrelevant. But these are the playoffs. This is no time to let Westbrook be Westbrook if it includes expelling yourself from the offense almost entirely. 

Bad things happen in those situations.

Horrible things happened in Game 5.

Westbrook was Westbrook, attacking aggressively, pairing a triple-double with historic inefficiency.

Westbrook was Westbrook, and the Thunder lost.

 

Grizz Being the Grizz

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

We would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge there aren't other factors at play.

The Grizzlies' defense has been sensational, like it always is. The diminutive Allen, who is five or six inches shorter than Durant, has been a maniac, denying him position and the ball, making life hard on the league's surefire MVP.

The Grizzlies are also spicing things up as a team, swarming and suffocating Durant, daring Westbrook to be a bigger part of the offense, as Daily Thunder's Royce Young explains:

Some of these "symptoms" are situational. Again, there will be times when Westbrook shoots more not only because he's on fire, but because opposing defenses encourage it.

If Durant cannot get a shot off or even catch the ball, who's the next-best option?

Westbrook.

More troubling still, Thunder coach Scott Brooks, in all his oversimplified glory, often relegates Durant to distraction duty by design.

"We had some plays where he has to space the floor," Brooks said of Durant, via Caplan. "We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that in the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities."

By no means are Durant's disappearing acts all on him and Westbrook. But it's on both to make them stop.

 

Force KD to Be KD

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

For the Thunder, it's time to panic.

For Durant, it's time to assert his status.

Down 3-2, facing elimination, this is no time for humility or common courtesy. This is no time for egos and taking easy routes. This is a time to do what's necessary and acknowledge what's right.

Durant doesn't need Westbrook. Life can be more convenient with him on the floor, or it can be worse. It's often both, sometimes neither. They're that much of a collective enigma.

But let's not hem and haw over what's becoming abundantly clear and was apparent long ago: Durant needs to be aggressive at all costs more than he needs Westbrook. His field-goal percentages were up across the board without Westbrook this season, according to NBA.com (subscription required). He attempted more shots, he scored more points.

He had the Thunder contending for a top-two Western Conference spot.

All without Westbrook.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The return and stay of Oklahoma City's point man should be an extension of that dynamic. The game plan shouldn't have changed when he came back, and it shouldn't be altered when he's on the floor now. 

Give Durant the ball, Russ. Go get the ball, KD.

Can the Thunder win with Durant taking a back seat to Westbrook?

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These two can work together once they understand their places. Westbrook's is somewhere behind Durant; Durant's is in front of everyone.

“Sometimes you have to be a decoy out there," Durant said, per Caplan. "I’m fine with that.” 

The Thunder aren't. They can't be. 

There is no room for Durant to be a decoy or inert distraction, no place in the Thunder offense for him to be passive and insignificant.

There is only room for Durant to be who he should be—forever aggressive—while Westbrook falls in line, behind his teammate, finally putting the Thunder in position to save their season the only way they can.

 

**Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise attributed.


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