His team is currently facing a 0-2 series deficit against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, but OKC wouldn’t be there without Westbrook.
His career may have taken a few untimely exits on the freeway to stardom, but Westbrook has made it to a place where we can no longer view him as a pair of handcuffs for Kevin Durant.
Westbrook’s path was an unlikely one, and it made the masses realize that Durant needs Russ. The same can’t necessarily be said the other way around, and as a result, Westbrook can’t protect his teammate any longer.
The Westbrook Challenge
Many have often wondered about the combustibility of Westbrook and Durant’s relationship.
It would be hard not to, considering their on-court dynamic. Durant is possibly the greatest scorer of his generation and needs the ball in order to accomplish this.
On the flip side, Westbrook is a point guard with a 2-guard’s mentality. He enjoys calling his own number and has seemingly never heard of the term “shot selection.” On a team with an incredibly efficient scoring option, that can be problematic.
The narrative has always been that Durant’s productivity is being sacrificed to increase Westbrook’s. However, that line of thinking took a slight shift during the 2013 playoffs.
Westbrook suffered a knee injury in the first-round series against the Houston Rockets that sidelined him for the remainder of the postseason. The Thunder still advanced past the Rockets but ran into a tough Memphis Grizzlies squad that eliminated them in five games.
In the absence of his sidekick, Durant struggled against Memphis. He was tasked with all of the playmaking duties as well as his typical scoring burden. The Grizzlies only needed to concentrate on slowing down Durant to win the series, and that’s exactly what transpired.
He still averaged 28.8 points during the series but also produced 4.4 turnovers and shot 42.1 percent from the field. What’s more, Durant failed to close in all of the defeats against the Grizzlies, despite the fact he tied for the league lead in total "clutch scoring" during the 2012-13 regular season.
His shortcomings finally alerted everyone that Westbrook was indispensable to OKC’s postseason success.
Make no mistake: Durant is a phenomenal talent capable of carrying the Thunder through stretches of the regular season, but against stiff playoff competition, he needs help.
KD reinforced this point by helping the Thunder win 59 games this year, despite Westbrook missing 36 games.
His brilliance in the absence of Westbrook helped him capture the MVP trophy. In Durant’s acceptance speech, he finally stated what should have been apparent to all, via Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
I know you guys think I forgot Russ. I can speak all night about Russell. An emotional guy who will run through a wall for me. I don’t take him for granted. There’s days I just want to tackle you and tell you to snap out of it sometimes, but I know there are days that you want to do the same to me. I love you, man, I love you. A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player. I’m the first to have your back through it all. Stay the person you are, everybody loves you here. I love you. ... You’re an MVP caliber player, it’s a blessing to play with you.
Westbrook has been an upper-echelon player for quite some time, as evidenced by his three All-NBA second-team selections, but it appears as though Durant’s MVP speech finally put the spotlight on Westbrook as his co-pilot, while many routinely viewed him as an averted plane crash.
And you know what else? Even if they drive us bonkers sometimes, Durant and Westbrook might be imperfectly perfect for each other.
You saw why last night, when a typically fearless Westbrook saved OKC from Durant’s abominable shooting night — his own version of LeBron’s perplexing Game 5 against Boston in 2010, a stink bomb that could have haunted him forever. Would LeBron have ever dumped Cleveland if he had Westbrook there? And why would Durant leave OKC when he has Westbrook there?
Simmons touched on a point that has gained traction this year: Durant is no longer infallible.
Durant has been shielded from criticism during most of his career because of a few convenient excuses that most made for him.
Thunder losses were always a product of the failures of Westbrook or head coach Scott Brooks. Durant was far too good and humble to ever let anyone down, until he actually did.
Westbrook’s injury during the 2013 playoffs put all of the pressure on Durant’s shoulders. When Oklahoma City lost at the hands of the Grizzlies, one prominent voice started to question Durant’s greatness.
This was based off a five-game sample size, but the seed had been planted.
Fast-forward to this year, and the media want more.
It started in March when Golliver shared these thoughts: "The better you perform, the higher the bar gets raised. These days, the bar suggests that Durant’s season will be a failure if the Thunder fall short of the conference finals."
Durant barely escaped the dangers that could have rendered his season unsuccessful by Golliver’s standards. The Thunder came close to being eliminated in the first round by the Grizzlies, and the heat came down on him for it.
With the Thunder facing a 3-2 series deficit, The Oklahoman did this:
This came on the heels of a Game 5 defeat where Westbrook spectacularly sent the game to overtime by stealing the ball from Mike Conley and scoring the game-tying basket at the end of regulation, all in the same sequence.
Westbrook had a Magic Johnson-like stat line in the loss: 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. Durant’s inability to get the Thunder out of a bad spot after Westbrook rescued OKC and forced the extra period prompted the newspaper headline.
Durant responded to the The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry on the topic: "It’s all good. I don’t really care. Coming from my paper back at home, that’s what they’re supposed to write. I didn’t come through for the team. So they got to write that type of stuff. As a player and as a competitor, it’s going to be good and bad days."
While Durant took a diplomatic approach, Westbrook took a shot at the media, also via Mayberry: "One week ago you guys called him MVP. Now the next week you call him unreliable. So that don’t make sense to me. That don’t make any sense. That’s bogus, man. That don’t make no sense. That really don’t."
After years of Durant coming to Westbrook’s defense, the roles were reversed. Westbrook backed up Durant publicly and did the same thing on the court. After bouncing back and eliminating Memphis, OKC faced an uphill battle in Game 5 against the Clippers.
With Durant struggling from the field (6-of-22 shooting), Oklahoma City was down by seven points with 49 seconds left in the contest. The Thunder quickly made it a two-point game with 13 seconds left on the clock as L.A. inbounded the ball to Chis Paul.
Paul expected a foul and instead watched in horror as Westbrook picked his pocket. After the ball was deflected out of bounds, the Thunder inbounded to Westbrook, who decided to fire an ill-advised three-pointer.
Paul fouled Westbrook and then watched him drill his free throws to win the contest. He finished the game with 38 points and six assists. One of Westbrook’s biggest accomplishments was the scrutiny he protected Durant from by closing out the contest.
MVP only 2-9, OKC trails by 6 at home at half after allowing 58. MVP better be better.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 14, 2014
The win allowed the Thunder to close out the Clippers in the following contest and advance to the Western Conference Finals, where the Spurs have blown out Oklahoma City in the first two games.
Part of the blame is on Durant because he hasn’t played up to his impressive standards. He’s averaging 21.5 points, 3.5 assists and four turnovers on 45.6 percent shooting against the Spurs.
To his credit, Durant realizes he must play better and shared as much with Mayberry: "I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done."
Granted, Westbrook has been subpar as well during the Western Conference Finals, but it’s become increasingly difficult to throw blame at him after watching him go on a historic run in this postseason.
Indeed, he is one of only seven players to average at least 25 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists in a minimum of 10 postseason games. Have a look at the list:
Westbrook isn’t the match that lights up the dynamite that’s going to blow up the Thunder. If anything, he’s part of the reason the fire has never made its way to the stick.
Durant has finally lost his shield.
Westbrook was viewed once upon a time as an obstacle that Durant had to conquer in order to ascend, but Westbrook has demonstrated that his teammate will only go so far without him.
Grantland’s Simmons said it best: "It’s the rarest of basketball partnerships — two alpha dogs coexisting and complementing each other (for the most part, anyway), with their friendship transcending every conceivable landmine."
In turn, Durant can no longer escape blame if the Thunder underachieve. The voices are now only going to get louder and louder if he fails, and Westbrook will no longer be there to protect him.
It’s about to be all on KD now.