Ever since “The Altercation,” things have really cooled on the “Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can’t co-exist front.” Mainly because the Thunder have risen to the best team in the West while Westbrook and Durant have looked equally spectacular.
They’re the top scoring duo in the league averaging a combined 51.9 points per game. They’ve both scored 40-plus in a game together twice this season, something no other duo in NBA history has done. Since start of 2010-11 season Durant and Westbrook have each scored 20-plus points in a game 70 times, most in NBA. I could go on, but I think you get it. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are very good.
And yet, there’s this perception. I say “this perception” because I’m not even sure if I know what it is anymore. Some think Westbrook is a ball-hog. Some think Durant and Westbrook hate each other. Some think Westbrook and Durant are locked in a battle for alpha dog supremacy. Some get locked into rudimentary statlines that explain nothing about the way Durant and Westbrook play together. Some just think they don’t play basketball very well together.
But those that have watched the Thunder play this season, they’ve seen an interesting dynamic. Westbrook and Durant appear to be getting along very well on the basketball court. Oklahoma City’s record (37-12) should say enough, but the question is if Westbrook and Durant can, or will, succeed in the postseason. The spotlight will be on and every fourth quarter jumper that Westbrook takes will be criticized, analyzed and scrutinized.
I’m trying to get out in front of that with this. So let’s start with this stat: In terms of “clutch” scoring, which is defined as the final five minutes (and overtime) of a game with a margin of five or less, Durant leads the league with 126 points. Joe Johnson and Chris Paul are second with 109. Westbrook is fourth with 102. Kobe is fifth is 100. Consider this too though: Durant is shooting 41.1 percent in the clutch, Westbrook 49.3 percent. (Kobe? He’s at 31.3 percent. Just wanted to toss that out there.)
The Thunder, who have played a good number of close games, have scored 277 points as a team in the clutch. Durant and Westbrook have combined for 228 of them. The Thunder have been one of the best teams at closing close games, and that’s been largely due to the success of Westbrook and Durant operating in those moments. They finished one and two in clutch scoring last season (Westbrook 199 points on 39.1 shooting, Durant 194 on 40.6), but this year, it’s a much more cohesive, natural attack.
As for the idea that Westbrook doesn’t defer, that’s just incorrect. Consider this: In the last minute one possession game, Durant has taken 32 shots. Westbrook just seven. In fourth quarters, Durant averages 5.4 attempts (and 7.2 points) to Westbrook’s 4.5 (and 5.6 points). Westbrook, who has a higher usage than Durant overall (30.2 to 28.4), Durant’s is considerably higher in the clutch (42.8 to 35.3). It’s obvious that the Thunder offense runs through Durant and Westbrook in crunch time, but primarily KD with Westbrook as the secondary option.
Westbrook has no issue passing to KD, obviously. It’s just that sometimes, the smarter offensive option is for him to take an open shot. Or to attack the rim. Or to isolate on a defender he can take. Hence the 102 points in the clutch. And the exceptional shooting percentage. You want to tell me that’s not working well? Well, the stats disagree.
There’s been a lot of talk about alpha dogs and Batman and Robin and whatnot, but I don’t really feel like that applies to Durant and Westbrook. They’re more like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Different, yes, but both extremely important to taking down the Empire. Durant’s a Jedi, Westbrook’s a swashbuckling mercenary. Neither is more important than the other, neither necessarily outranks the other. They both have their place. There’s no Batman and Robin, no superhero and sidekick. They’re equals, just different. The Thunder know their roles, but they aren’t caged into the idea that Durant MUST be the big shot taker as crunch time. More often than not that duty falls to him, but it’s not like it has been written into their contracts.
The Thunder rely on Durant because he’s that damn good. He can get his shot any time, over anyone, in any situation. In the last 10 seconds of a one possession game, Durant leads the league with 21 points on 50 percent shooting. It’s obvious he’s built for big moments and it only makes sense to operate through him. I don’t deny that has some kind of alpha dog element to it as well as Westbrook steps aside, but I think it also has a lot to do with the fact Durant’s better made for those type of situations.
Are they meant for an ultimate demise like Avon and Stringer? Like Kobe and Shaq? Like KG and Marbury? I don’t think so. They don’t always get along and they don’t always play well together, but we’re talking about 23-year-olds that are about five years ahead of schedule.
Next step? Figuring out how to make sure James Harden is included in all of this.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.