Staring down a 2-0 series deficit and awaiting an epic 35-point defeat, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were visibly frustrated. At one point Wednesday night, the former chastised the latter for a defensive mistake, yelling at him to "wake up" while pointing to his head.
"I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff, and he got on me right back," Westbrook told reporters. "That’s what teammates do. That’s what leaders do. We get on each other, we come back, and we talk about it, and then we come out like nothing ever happened."
Even if this is standard operating procedure among leaders, it's probably not the best time to look like anything less than a united front. But propriety aside, Westbrook had a point.
Durant later admitted as much, per The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:
I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter. I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I over-helped, and he got another 3. And then Ginobili hit a 3. All those plays was on me. It was my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. Wish they wouldn’t have happened. I can’t get them back now. But I’ll take that one.
The defensive lapses turned a modest San Antonio Spurs lead into 14 points by halftime. For the briefest of moments, KD looked a little like...well, Mr. Unreliable.
In his postgame remarks, head coach Scott Brooks cited the exchange as a wake-up call of sorts:
We got frustrated with one another because we gave up the three threes. Those are the type of frustrations that I like in a basketball team. It’s on the defensive end. We gave up some threes, and we wanted to make sure that did not happen going forward. It happens with every team. Kevin and Russell obviously have a lot of respect for one another. ... We have to do a better job of closing quarters. We talked about this going into the series. We have to play solid basketball every possession, every minute, and San Antonio, they always do a good job of closing out quarters.
Of course, moments like these have been an exception rather than a rule for Durant. On the whole this season, he's been anything but unreliable. He had a monster regular-season campaign, and he's dotted the postseason with enough memorable performances to justify our collective belief in everything Durant.
There's no doubt Durant deserved the MVP.
There's just a little doubt about what kind of MVP he is. Will he be remembered as a taller version of Allen Iverson, a supremely talented scorer who often carried his team? Or will he be counted among a still more elite class of Most Valuable Players—alongside Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James?
The 25-year-old still has plenty of time to define his legacy. At the moment, though, he hasn't exactly established himself as the next Jordan.
Gaudy numbers aside, this is the real test of an iconic MVP. What happens when your third-best player is injured? What do you do in the third quarter in Game 2 of the conference finals, when your team trails by double-digits?
Mayberry summarized this particular third-quarter action:
In the first seven minutes of the third, Durant and Westbrook were back at it, taking turns chucking shots as they attempted slice [sic] into the Spurs’ lead as if each shot was worth six points.
Westbrook and Durant used six of the Thunder’s first eight possessions of the period and 14 of 19 in that game-clinching eight-minute stretch. They used five straight during one stretch and eight straight during another. In the latter stretch, they hoisted four straight 3-pointers, each letting two fly.
By the end of the game, Durant and Westbrook combined to make just 13 of 40 field-goal attempts. Collectively, the Thunder made just 39.3 percent of their shots. OKC's two best players tallied just seven assists between them. Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher combined for eight.
Per Mayberry, Durant later justified the lack of ball movement by saying, "we’re the focal point of the offense."
As they should be.
And as focal points, that means they'll be in store for plenty of finger-pointing when that offense only scores 77 points.
There are some offensive principles that transcend stardom. Chief among them is ball movement, the thing that keeps defenders scrambling and off balance. Durant isn't just responsible for making baskets. He's responsible for executing an offense that should remain one of the very best even without power forward Serge Ibaka.
MVPs don't just take shots. They take the right shots. They make the best decisions. They do the things for which LeBron James has become renowned.
They trust their teammates.
Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears noted:
Oklahoma City coach Scottie Brooks has preached to Durant and Westbrook to trust their teammates to help them win games. But as the Spurs continued to make 3-pointers and break down OKC's defense in the paint, Durant and Westbrook unsuccessfully relied on themselves to try to dig the Thunder out of their hole.
Durant will get his opportunities one way or the other. In fact, he reasons to get even better looks if the ball moves like it should. That's ultimately the point of passing the rock consistently—good shots are replaced with great shots. Contested shots give way to open ones.
Good as KD is with a hand in his face, he's even better with an open lane to the basket.
The benefits of unselfish offenses are well-documented, as are the pitfalls of hero ball. When defenders know who's going to shoot, they can zero in on the primary scorers and make their lives more difficult. The Spurs are smart enough to do just that.
There are a number of reasons moving the ball is uniquely important in this series, too. Reggie Jackson averaged 21 points per game in four regular-season contests against the Spurs. Through Games 1 and 2, he's scored just 21 points combined.
After scoring 16 points in Game 1, Derek Fisher was held to just two points on Wednesday night. He only attempted two three-pointers.
The supporting cast needs touches to develop a rhythm. Look no further than shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha for symptoms, who told reporters, "I like the shots I’m getting. It’s just about finding a rhythm."
It's up to Durant to set a different tone, to insist his teammates get opportunities. It's also something he's done for most of the year, averaging 5.5 assists during the regular season.
Westbrook shares in that responsibility, to be sure. He's the point guard, after all, and he's more than capable of distributing the ball.
But he's not the MVP.
Durant's legacy will hinge on series like this one. It's not too late for him to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but he'll be judged by wins and losses—not by how many shots he takes and how many points he scores.
The bottom line for KD has changed. For the remainder of this series, we won't be grading him on the numbers he produces. We'll be watching how he plays on both ends of the floor. We'll be watching how he leads. We'll be paying attention to the little things that win or lose ballgames. And perhaps most importantly, we'll use the supporting cast's performances as a metric for whether Durant's doing his job.
Perhaps it's unfair to ask such things of the league's MVP. Maybe he's more Iverson than Jordan. Maybe he'll be remembered as a great but forever one-dimensional player. Maybe there are some tasks that are simply too tall for one man alone.
But there's still time to prove otherwise.