Saturday's game was never very close after the first half. Whatever groove the Thunder seemed to find in Game 6 appears to have become the new normal for the time being. That groove begins with superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder move on! Westbrook records a triple-double (27 pts, 10 reb, 16 ast) to lead OKC over MEM 120-109! pic.twitter.com/iyifWD9nJL— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 4, 2014
OKC closes out Game 7 with authority. Kevin Durant drops 33, Westbrook goes triple-double, Thunder win 120-109. pic.twitter.com/bK6pDbEe07— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 4, 2014
In Game 6, they combined for 61 of the team's 104 points. In Game 7, Durant tallied 33 points and eight rebounds. Westbrook contributed an impressive triple-double with 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com), Westbrook's "assist total tied the franchise record for a playoff game set in 1987 by Nate McMillan when the team was still in Seattle."
After the game, Westbrook said, "I was just trying to take what the defense was giving me...My job is to facilitate offense and be aggressive at the same time."
That's easier said than done, and decision making has often been one of the few knocks against Westbrook. He proved himself an energetic and often electric scorer long ago, but the question has remained whether he can be the balanced point guard Oklahoma City needs.
He was certainly that on Saturday night.
With their fearless leaders on fire, the rest of the Thunder found their stride as well. Caron Butler (who was inserted into the starting lineup), Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson combined for 43 points.
Perhaps there's an important lesson to be learned. When all is right between Durant and Westbrook, everything else seems to fall into place. Their chemistry has a spillover effect, picking up the rest of OKC's rotation and causing it to follow suit.
For a minute there, it looked like Durant had come into his own without Westbrook around. Though the point guard's absence was damning during the 2013 postseason, the Thunder maintained a steady roll when he missed significant time during in 2013-14. In all, Westbrook missed 36 games this season.
In turn, Durant had his best campaign yet, averaging 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists en route to what will likely be his first MVP nod.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, "Durant is expected to be named league MVP early next week, according to sources close to the situation."
It had been widely anticipated throughout the league that Durant would earn the award for the first time in his career. The most likely scenario, sources said, is a Tuesday news conference to announce Durant's win, followed by a pregame ceremony before Oklahoma City's home game Wednesday night in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
None of us should be too surprised. But there are certainly different ways to interpret Durant's epic success.
At first glance, it might have seemed like OKC's premier superstar was better off without his dynamic sidekick.
We should know better. Any doubts that Westbrook is essential to Oklahoma City's one-two punch were silenced in Games 6 and 7. The Thunder need both of their stars, and they need them to share the rock with one another and share space on the floor.
Hard as it may be for Westbrook to strike that balance between facilitating and scoring, it's equally difficult to develop a truly synergistic relationship with another dominant player. It's become a double-edged sword for the Thunder. They obviously can't live without both stars on the floor, but they've sometimes struggled to live with them, too.
Westbrook was especially effective on Saturday on account of the Grizzlies playing without the suspended Zach Randolph. With a little less size in the lane, OKC's floor general was free to attack at will, creating plays for himself and others in the process.
Even if you think Durant and Westbrook's compatibility is an occasional problem, it's the kind of problem most teams would love to have.
Opposing defenses have little chance to zero in on either scorer. In a perfect world, Memphis head coach David Joerger would have been able to keep stopper Tony Allen on Westbrook. But Allen spent most of the series helping out on Durant instead, forcing point guard Mike Conley to do his best on Russ.
It's not just that Durant and Westbrook can both score and make plays. They're also difficult for anyone to guard—Allen included.
Durant is just too long for most opponents to get a hand in his face. His quick release and ability to fall away make his jumper all but incontestable. Meanwhile, Westbrook's secret weapon is his speed. He can use it to get to the rim, or he can stop on a dime and pull up from virtually anywhere. Those kinds of offensive abilities are just too much for mortal teams to handle.
When things aren't going Oklahoma City's way, it's only natural to start pointing fingers. Maybe Scott Brooks' offense isn't creative enough. Maybe Durant and Westbrook just weren't meant to be together. Maybe Durant just isn't reliable enough...
Wait, that can't be right. Sure enough, The Oklahoman labeled Durant "Mr. Unreliable" during the Thunder's first-round series, later apologizing for a claim that was both wildly overstated and entirely inaccurate.
When asked after Game 6 if the headline inspired his performance, Durant said, "I'm not going to give [the newspaper] credit for nothing. We were down 3-2. We needed to win this game" (per CBSSports' Gary Parrish).
Perhaps we should start withholding judgment when it comes to the Thunder. This may not be a perfect team, but it's proved awfully dangerous over the last three seasons, and it's done so with Durant and Westbrook at the helm.
That much is beyond reproach.
It's also pretty uncontroversial to suggest that Durant and Westbrook will need more Game 7-like performances to get through these playoffs. The Western Conference is stacked with talented, battle-tested teams. The Thunder can take nothing for granted, and they certainly can't afford for their hero-ball to become a one-sided affair.
There are two heroes in OKC. And they're both starting to play like it.