OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have grown up since coming together in Oklahoma City eight years ago, from the baby-faced days before the accolades, to the lens-less frames and backpacks, to the playoff disappointments and career-threatening injuries that hardened them, and now to a 3-1 lead in the conference finals over the best regular season team ever. Durant and Westbrook have been the best two players in this series. They are both also top-5 players in the world (or damn close). Sometimes, the incredibly complex game of basketball becomes as simple as that.
There were enough flaws — turnovers for Westbrook, efficiency for Durant — that Tuesday’s Game 4 won’t go down as the duo’s time capsule performance. Yet that only speaks to their excellence, given how incredible they were anyway: Durant scored 26 points with 11 rebounds, with Westbrook notching a 36-11-11 triple-double. The box score is an incomplete facsimile of their total impact. As Durant and Westbrook go, so does Oklahoma City.
How Thunder coach Billy Donovan ever manages to take them off the floor is a testament to the job he’s doing as a coach this series. Durant and Westbrook both played 41 minutes on Tuesday, and even though Donovan played a year in the NBA, he wouldn’t dare compare himself to those two.
“Listen, I played the game, but not at that level,” Donovan said. “The physical stamina, concentration and ability of not only Russell but Kevin to night after night play and try to play at that incredible level is really, really remarkable. You’re never going to, with either one of those two guys, ever say anything about their effort because their effort’s always phenomenal.”
Golden State’s smallball lineups became famous last season for their effectiveness, but Oklahoma City hasn’t just flipped the table on them — they’ve smashed it, taken a torch to the pieces and scattered the ashes in the San Francisco Bay. When the Thunder have paired Durant and Westbrook with Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka in the last two games, Oklahoma City has outscored Golden State 91-35 in 26 minutes. It’s a lineup that’s only possible, though, thanks to Kevin Durant’s versatility.
Durant’s able to guard any position on the floor and has used his size to emerge as a bonafide rim protector over the last few weeks. Even his three blocks and four steals don’t fully illustrate the constant deflections and the full impact that his arms that stretch into the cosmos had on Tuesday. The Warriors‘ famous Death Lineup needs Draymond Green at his best to operate efficiently, but as Green struggles mightily, the Thunder’s smallball facsimile has Durant fulfilling the same role.
“They like to pass the ball freely and they like to move freely, so (we’re) just trying to be physical and trying to get our hands on some basketballs,” Durant said.
Both players can be guilty of getting frustrated and taking shots they shouldn’t, but that isn’t usually the case. Nights like Tuesday show how they create their free-flowing offense, one that had 23 assists to 39 made shots.
“It’s a joy for me to be around guys like that every day to see them share the ball the way they do,” Donovan said.
Seeing Durant and Westbrook operate together on the same roster still amazes Randy Foye, who joined the team at this season’s trade deadline.
“It’s sometimes mind-blowing, because it’s basically like taking turns manipulating the defense,” Foye told SB Nation. “Saying, ‘Hey, if you don’t help, I’m gonna score 40. If you do, I’m going to get 11 assists.'”
It’s harder for Steven Adams, who has grown so used to them after three years now. But he knows, too.
“You see it every day in practice,” Adams said. “But it definitely is amazing when you step back and look at it.”
Green and Stephen Curry, at their best, approximate the Durant and Westbrook pairing. But Curry looks nothing like himself after missing much of the first two series with a knee injury, while Green has played two of the worst games of his life after a couple flagrant fouls. There’s no one vying for the title of best players in the series but Durant and Westbrook, still together after all these years, still at the top of it all.
Those two have been quick to heap credit on the other players in Oklahoma City, and indeed, after years of seeing role players showing their flaws in playoff settings, the Thunder have finally found ways to maximize what players like Waiters, Roberson and Kanter do well. Those guys have been crucial to this unexpected run, one that no one expected to make it past San Antonio, much less hold a commanding lead against Golden State.
Sometimes, between Durant’s looming free agency and Westbrook’s tendency to make headlines for other reasons, the boundless praise for those two becomes fractured. Durant is remarkable, the storyline will go, until it flips back to Westbrook after he has a good game. That’s not how it works with the Thunder, though. It’s only through their combined brilliance that they can succeed.