OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were in step, more so figuratively than ever before, and this time quite literally as they walked away from the ashes that were the Golden State Warriors‘ hopes of a smooth run to back-to-back championships.
The Oklahoma City Thunder‘s dynamic duo did not raise their arms, pump their fists or rear back their heads and yell to celebrate their 108-102 victory in the Western Conference finals opener. A quick five, a tap on the chest from Westbrook to Durant and they were on their way, as businesslike as Stockton and Malone.
They weren’t beautiful, but they were balanced. Sure, Durant and Westbrook missed 34 shots between them. They also had nearly identical scoring outputs, with 27 points from Westbrook and 26 from Durant. Durant kept telling his teammates everything they needed to do to win this game. Westbrook kept expending all of his energy to give the Thunder every possible chance. Leadership in different ways, leadership they’re more capable than ever of providing.
“They both have just grown … as far as just becoming men,” said Thunder backup big man Nazr Mohammed, who played his first stint in Oklahoma City in 2011 and 2012. “I mean, they’re adults.”
They’ve matured to the point that Mohammed will admit his veteran perspective isn’t as needed as it was before, when the Thunder brought in old heads such as himself, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler to add experienced voices in the locker room. Durant and Westbrook can handle that themselves now. In fact, they can even provide guidance to their rookie coach, Billy Donovan, as they go through their fourth conference finals while he experiences his first.
Donovan trusted their judgment when it came to second-half playing time. Westbrook told him he needed just a quick breather, so he sat out for four minutes. Durant told Donovan to leave him in the entire third and fourth quarters, confident that he could gather his wind during the extended timeouts.
“Did I look tired?” Durant asked back to a query about his fatigue.
Well, he did miss eight of his first 11 shots in the fourth quarter, some of them wide open. Durant wouldn’t accept lack of energy as an excuse. If anything, he felt his last open miss was too strong.
But with the Thunder leading by three points in the final minute, they isolated Durant at the top against Andre Iguodala and let the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player go to work against the 2015 NBA Finals MVP. Durant maneuvered to within 17 feet, pulled up for a jump shot that put Oklahoma City ahead by five and put his team in position to win — an advantage that was boosted when the officials appeared to miss a travel by Westbrook while he signaled for timeout with the Thunder up three with 17.2 seconds remaining.
It was another controversial officiating decision that went the Thunder’s way late in a road victory. The thing to remember is that in each case the Thunder had already earned the lead on their own accord. And most of the credit goes to Durant and Westbrook.
They’re both 27. They’re in their primes. They’re also aware they could be near the end of their time together. Durant hits free agency this summer. Westbrook will be a free agent next summer. They recognize the special position they’re in and appreciate the way each benefits from the other. Even their disputes have taken on a different tone. They’ll maintain eye contact when they argue now, instead of turning away from each other in exasperation.
Donovan made some big-boy decisions of his own, and they paid off. He stayed with bigger lineups, conceding that the Warriors have mastered small ball and it would be foolish to fight on their terms. It was easy to leave Steven Adams on the court; he had 16 points and 12 rebounds, he was plus-19 in 36 minutes — and the 60 percent foul shooter even made six consecutive free throws in the second half.
Staying with Enes Kanter took a little more conviction. The Warriors lured Enes Kanter into switches; whoever was guarding him went on the attack. The net result: Oklahoma City was outscored by seven points during his five-minute stint in the first half, and his plus-minus dipped as low as minus-12 in the second half before he started grabbing rebounds, getting a few buckets and contributing to the comeback. He finished in positive territory.
Donovan was playing the long game, thinking he didn’t want to break Kanter’s confidence in Game 1 and lose him for the rest of the series. The old saying is that quick guys get tired, but big guys don’t get small. The Thunder wore down the Warriors, thwarted their every-man-pitch-in approach to rebounding and eventually won the board battle 52-44. They held the Warriors to 14 points and 1-for-10 3-point shooting in the fourth quarter, when OKC finished off a comeback from a 14-point deficit that began with a 38-point third quarter.
“They have a pretty big lineup that they can throw out there and do a lot of switching and take you out of certain reads,” said Stephen Curry, who wound up with 26 points. “They didn’t make too many mistakes on the defensive end, which forced us into some tough shots.”
The Thunder overcame their early mistakes, such as turnovers and poor rim defense. They overcame 20 missed shots by Durant. They negated the 18-win differential in the regular season that had provided the Warriors home-court advantage in this series.
“We’re a resilient group,” Durant said. “We just keep fighting ’til the end. We’re sticking to who we are as a team.”
This is the Thunder right now, regularly recording the most impressive victories of these playoffs. This is Durant and Westbrook right now, better than they’ve ever been in their eight years together.