Last fall, no one would have dared to question Kevin Durant’s status as sole superstar and leader of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was Durant who had single-handedly kept the team afloat after the team was moved to Oklahoma City. It was Durant’s leadership and work ethic that helped to create a team of hardworking, overachieving young players. Led by Durant, those young players pushed the eventual two-time champs, the Los Angeles Lakers, to the brink in a series that was one Pau Gasol tip-in from a Game 7. It has been Kevin Durant, not Russell Westbrook, who has been the head honcho out in Oklahoma City.
But, it has been Westbrook who has grown by leaps and bounds this season. Statistically, his numbers have jumped almost across the board: He averages 22 ppg (from 16 ppg last year), 1.9 spg (from 1.3), 8.3 apg (from 8.0) and his three-point percentage is up to a respectable 33 percent from a mediocre 22 percent last year.
However, Westbrook’s evolution goes beyond the numbers. To anyone who has seen him play, it is clear that Westbrook has become an elite point guard, despite the fact that he’s only 22—in other words, he’s still going to get better. Westbrook has become nearly unstoppable on the fast break and he’s become a better mid-to-long range shooter.
Moreover, despite the slight rise in turnovers this year—which is due to the fact that he now exclusively holds ball-handling duties and more is required of him—any fan who has been following Westbrook will tell you his decision-making skills are vastly improving. For the most part, he knows where the ball needs to go and when to get rid of it. Most importantly, he showed us in the first 82 games that he is learning to slow down the game in order to set the offense and get his teammates involved.
So, after the regular season, it was understandable that Westbrook was getting a lot of attention—more than even Durant. For weeks, ESPN.com had Westbrook over Durant in their rankings for potential MVPs. After it became clear that Derrick Rose would get the award, many writers—including several on this site—pointed out that Westbrook’s numbers were comparable to Rose’s (those writers ignored the fact that Rose was the only real, consistent option in his offense). Durant was, for the time being, in the back of our minds.
And then, the playoffs began. Since then, Westbrook has been much maligned as the target of much criticism. Like a lot of negative, nonconstructive criticism, some of it was deserved, a lot of it was the result of hype. People complained that Westbrook was taking more shots than Durant (a pair of 30-plus shot games come to mind) and was turning the ball over in crucial situations (indeed, five turnovers per game in these playoffs far exceed his 3.8 turnovers per game in the regular season).
People forget that Westbrook has been a terrific second option, but the hype around him is clearly weighing down on both Durant and himself.
During the end of regulation in Game 4 against the Grizzlies, Westbrook received the inbounds pass and dribbled it down the court. Before he reached half court, Durant seemed to call for the ball. That is, he raised his hands as if he wanted to be the one taking it down. As we know, and as Durant mentioned earlier this week, he is neither a vocal leader nor a particularly demonstrative one. He rarely calls for the ball. All season, Westbrook has made decisions regarding ball movement—the offense runs through Westbrook.
Durant did not get the ball then and Westbrook missed what could have been the game winner. While many fans and pundits will overreact and demand that Durant should always get the ball, it is clear that the Thunder offense works because it is not one-dimensional. Besides, Westbrook has proven all year that he is just as clutch as any of his teammates.
In the first overtime, Durant called for the ball, but was immediately double teamed. He did not see a wide open Kendrick Perkins down low, so he opted for the long three. He missed. So it goes.
In double overtime, Westbrook missed another potential game winner. In the intermission, it was clear on both Durant’s and Westbrook’s faces that the team had a Miami Heat-like problem.
And then, Thunder nation fell in love with Durant all over again. After a quick catch-and-shoot, Durant received the inbounds pass on the next possession. Westbrook, as the primary ball-carrier, held his hands out for the pass, but Durant waved him down court. No one else touched the ball on that possession. Durant came in with swagger, stutter stepped, bounced the ball behind his back and casually put up a shot, which would end up being a dagger in the heart of all Memphis fans.
For now, we all love Durant again and understand that he is the superstar on this team. And he is. But he is not the only superstar. Westbrook is currently an all-star and a top 20 player in the NBA. We know that the pair struggles with designations of “Batman” and “Robin”, or 1A and 1B .
Neither one of them are cocky or selfish, but it’s clear that they like to be the leaders of their team and are dissatisfied when they aren't. We saw it in Durant all season, and especially last night when Westbrook took that first potentially game-winning shot; and we saw it in Westbrook when Durant had that now-legendary comeback performance against the Nuggets a couple of weeks ago. But the two must learn to co-exist in order for this team to become perennial playoff contenders.
Then again, I could be an internet writer reading too much into all this.