It was a nightmare rendered jarringly real for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook jawing at Kevin Durant on their way to a huddle late in the first half of Wednesday’s Western Conference Finals showdown with the San Antonio Spurs.
As if the experience of living through the Spurs’ 112-77 torture-chamber tour, putting OKC in a 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series, weren’t hellish enough.
As if Tony Parker’s hardwood surgery and Danny Green’s assassin hand wouldn’t conjure the Saw series clearly enough.
Now the Thunder faithful are being faced with the most terrifying prospect of all: their two best players—arguably two of the top ten players in the world—self-destructing whilst their eyes are forced open à la Alex DeLarge.
As their team’s leaders and two-headed basketball monster, Durant and Westbrook must forgive, forget and, most pressing of all, adjust.
Otherwise, they can count on at least two more squeamish sequels.
This isn’t so much about the bad basketball, although there’s been plenty of that. Offensively, the Thunder have been horrendous, following up Monday’s equally discouraging meltdown by shooting 39 percent from the floor, 10 percent from three-point range and attempting only 10 free throws (they made five).
It’s not even specifically about the defense, which has looked hopelessly disorganized in the absence of Serge Ibaka, the team’s one true rim protector, sidelined with a season-ending calf injury in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Just when you think the Spurs have spent all our superlatives, they respond with a performance like this: precise and poetic, exacting and exciting, the evermore-pure gold standard of unbridled basketball brilliance.
The Thunder, by comparison, couldn’t even muster the luster of fool’s gold, the single coat of spray paint having flaked off to reveal the coal beneath.
It starts, as it must, with Durant, the league’s newly minted MVP suddenly rendered also-ran.
Westbrook wasn’t much better, finishing with 15 belabored points on a putrid 7-of-24 from the field and zero free-throw attempts.
When the stats are this stark, it’s futile to focus too much on the strategy. For Durant and Westbrook, no amount of precise play-calling or well-placed picks will suffice if one word doesn’t become the immediate mantra: pride.
Without pride, belief in teammates doesn’t apply. Without pride, better shot selection only means better misses. Without pride, the fact that you’re still in this series—and you are still in this series—fades far too fast in the face of next year.
Which is easy to do when you’re 25 years old and still climbing toward your prime.
The Thunder look utterly rudderless. But no matter how bad you believe Scott Brooks to be, pinning a 35-point loss on his lapel isn’t merely convenient; it’s lazy.
That’s on Durant and Westbrook. Which is not the same as saying that every surrendered point and bad box-out and botched rotation was their doing and theirs alone.
But what if their tiff had never occurred? OKC was, after all, well within striking distance when it happened. More importantly, what if the breakdown that led to the tiff had been quelled?
Contrition is a start, of course. But it’s not exactly a sound substitute for the savage urgency the Thunder will need going forward.
That it should’ve been there from the opening tip on Wednesday wastes words on the obvious. Durant and Westbrook certainly know this. Even if knowing and adjusting are two, very different things.
In a recent roundtable for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins—in a capsule both prescient and positively optimistic—explained why he believed the Thunder had what it takes to steal the series:
Two playoffs ago, Miami lost Chris Bosh, went small, and still reached the Finals on the strength of LeBron James, the versatility of Dwyane Wade and the accuracy of shooters galore. The Thunder do not have the marksmen the Heat did, but they too can downsize without Serge Ibaka, leaning on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make up for his absence. The Spurs will likely load up on Durant and back off Westbrook, treating him much the way they did James in last year’s Finals, conceding some long jumpers. Westbrook will have to burn them, and a third scorer will have to emerge for Oklahoma City, but Reggie Jackson has proven in bursts he’s up for the challenge. The Thunder have also demonstrated, going back to this round two years ago, they can run with the Spurs.
Much will be made of Westbrook’s 24 shots and how such guileless gunning damages OKC’s cause. On any other night—a night when the final deficit was less than five touchdowns, for instance—that would amount to a sound critique.
But when not even the league’s most gifted scorer can navigate his way to 20? At that point, Westbrook’s exploits are the only things that make you think the Thunder might have a pulse.
Heading into Game 3, the the emphasis, while simplistic, is about all the Thunder have to fall on: score, score, score.
Without Ibaka, OKC's defense is bound to break down. Even on offense, the rangy forward's midrange abilities will be sorely missed.
Sooner or later, Brooks is going to have to consider downsizing to a smaller lineup that features Durant at power forward and either Caron Butler or Perry Jones at the 3, jettisoning the struggling Nick Collison in the process.
The Thunder aren’t suddenly going to figure out how to shut down Tony Parker. They won’t dissuade the Spurs from orchestrating spacing—not completely, anyway. There is no potion potent enough to turn Gregg Popovich into a coaching pumpkin.
What OKC has, however, is a pair of superlative talents capable of flipping the tone and tenor not just of a single game but an entire series.
Which is why Wednesday’s devastating loss could break one of two ways: toward another gory, grotesque sequel in what’s fast turning into a truly frightening horror franchise, or—if KD and Russ can somehow circle the wagons—a cinematic redemption for the ages.