March 31, 2009.
I think that’s the night I realized Russell Westbrook was going to be good.
By good I mean good. Not a player that’s talented but frustratingly inconsistent. But a player that can grow into an absolute demon wrecking ball from hell. A player that can win games all by himself, that can carry a team on an off night, that could mature and develop into an All-Star.
March 31, 2009, the young Thunder were trying to continue their push to close their inaugural season in Oklahoma City on a positive note. They were 5-8 in March — which was really good for that team — and were taking on the mighty Spurs in San Antonio. Hard to figure how it happened, but the Thunder miraculously upset the Spurs 96-95, producing their signature win of the 2008-09 season. And it happened largely because of Russell Westbrook.
His final line wasn’t overwhelmingly eye-popping — 16 points on 6-15 shooting, 10 assists, three rebounds — but the way Westbrook competed and closed the game showed something.
He’s going to be alright.
The fear with Westbrook that entire rookie season was that he wouldn’t figure out how to bottle his relentless energy and intensity into a positive force, that he would sprint up and down the court like a rabbit on meth and Red Bull for 48 minutes. But in a tight game against a good team, Westbrook put it all together. He ran the offense, he controlled the game, and he made his signature hustle plays.
It was a night that the Thunder showed the promise that so many had been talking about. It was a night the future was foretold with Westbrook putting it together and Kevin Durant dropping 31 on 12-19. It was a night that a lot of folks started to realize how potentially good this young crazy bunch could be if those two guys started doing that kind of stuff routinely.
Lots of people have been talking about the rise of the Thunder, but this game is your best example of what’s to come. Durant plays like a superstar, Uncle Jeff makes winning plays, Krstic hit shots, Westbrook owned the game and the team played excellent defense. They withstood a major 13-2 Spurs run in the fourth quarter to just gut out a win. The last possession was a mess and when Finley’s shot was in the air I felt like I just jumped out of an airplane with no parachute. But it rimmed out and OKC had an awesome win. The thing kind of hit me in the face because the whole fourth quarter I was preparing for a loss. But just like that it was over and OKC had more points. I was stunned and excited at the same time. Easily the best win of the year (hey, when you don’t have a lot, it’s easy to top the last one) and another great baby step in the journey to respectability.
Obviously things changed, but the foundation has always been the same. And about Westbrook specifically:
How about that offensive rebound he had over Ginobili in the fourth quarter? That’s the stuff I’m talking about. Just total effort and it resulted in two points. He came out of nowhere and went way up and over Manu to grab an offensive rebound and put it down for a huge two. These are the reasons that I think Westbrook is going to be a special player and a winner.
That’s what we’ve seen happen these past five seasons. All of this success and prosperity the team, the organization and the city have experienced don’t happen unless those two young players become what they became. Everything — everything — was only possible with them. The keys to the franchise were handed to them and if they fizzled, Sam Presti’s master plan crashed and burned with it. There have obviously been other important parts to fill in this puzzle. James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Robert Swift — but it’s always been about Nos. 35 and 0.
There was never too much question about Durant — though I did wonder early on at one point please forgive me KD. Except I’m not sure too many fully expected him to be possible legend material. We knew he’d be a terrific scorer and a likely All-Star. But maybe one of the all-time greats?
And the grander question that surfaced in the 2011 postseason, reaching a swirling boil later that year after a supposed spat on the bench: Could Westbrook and Durant co-exist? Many a conclusion were drawn at different times about the two. For his entire rookie season and most of his second, the Westbrook-Isn’t-A-Point-Guard doubters surfaced and talked loudly. There were those that claimed Durant needed a pure point man to maximize his scoring potential. There were those that didn’t think two ball dominant players could effectively get enough of the offense.
What happened, though? The Thunder have engineered one of the best offenses in the league over the last three seasons with Durant winning three scoring titles en route to four All-Star appearances, while Westbrook has made three trips and become a standard All-NBA player.
I think it worked out. Is Westbrook a point guard? I don’t know, nor do I give a flying crap. Is ice cream healthy?
The Thunder have two of the game’s five or six best players on their roster, and they’re Presti’s plan walking and talking in a tangible form. The design was always to draft young players that could grow and develop and mature together. Year over year, Westbrook and Durant haven’t just grown individually, but as a duo. They’ve both come to understand their present success, both as an individual and within the team, is tied directly to the other guy.
Durant has always garnered a lot of credit — rightfully so — for the way he’s handled all the Russ questions about if he’s selfish, if he shoots too much, if he’s a hot-head, if he’s really the right teammate.
“We butt heads just like any other players because we are both competitive, we both want to go at it, we both have ideas,” Durant said in 2011 before the season. “That’s going to happen. But I support him 100 percent. Of course, I hated when people were saying the stuff they were saying, and he hated it as well. I didn’t want it to get to his head. I hate when people try to creep into the group and try to break things up.
“I enjoy playing with Russell so much. I hope he understands that, and I’m sure he does. I’m looking forward to next season already. The last thing I’ve been worrying about is what people say about Russ, and I’m sure that’s the last thing he’s worrying about as well … I don’t want any other point guard. He’s perfect for us, the type of guy he is, the type of player he is, the type of teammate he is. We’re all competitive, especially me and him. We get the best of each other in practice every day, and we want to go at each other and make each other better. We are going to have disagreements. That’s what all good players on good teams do.”
Durant always says the right things, and that’s mostly because, he believes in the right things. It’s as if Durant was scientifically engineered in some hidden lab in an experiment to create the perfect teammate. Maybe he had some internal doubts at times, but when it came down to lacing up and playing, Durant trusted Westbrook. He believed in him. The Westbrook-Durant dynamic was always going to work because Durant was going to make it work. He understood the team needed Westbrook to be successful and through all his flaws and tunnel-vision approach, Durant saw that.
And if anything, their relationship was just strengthened again this postseason with Westbrook’s injury. Durant was asked after Game 3 against the Grizzlies what he’s learned about himself and the team after not playing with Westbrook.
“That we need him,” Durant said earnestly. “We miss him.”
The issue with Westbrook has always been the misunderstanding of his true motivations. Durant always got it. What so many saw as frantic, wild selfishness when Westbrook would recklessly attack 1-on-5 or take contested shots late in a game was actual just a little too much self-belief. That’s the battle Westbrook has always waged. It’s not that he’s selfish. It’s just that he believes in Russell Westbrook more than anyone else and in his manic, obsessive will to win, those two things clash sometimes.
The blend of that, with Durant’s effortless efficiency have built a near perfect give-and-take. Aesthetically, too. They’re both so damn fun to watch, but so unalike. Durant with the pure shooting, intelligent shot selection and general prettiness of his game. Westbrook with the rage, the fury, the non-stop nature. It’s like going to a Sinatra show with Metallica as an opener. Both superb in their own ways.
So many people always went with the Batman and Robin thing to describe Westbrook and Durant, but I’ve never liked that. To me, it’s more like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Durant’s the basketball Jedi, Westbrook the swashbuckling hoop pirate. They’re different. But they work.
All that Stringer and Avon stuff? Just noise. We were watching two young players learn how to play with each other while battling their own developing talents. It’s a tricky thing to manage those formative NBA years, especially when you’re exploding into a superstar. Durant and Westbrook, somewhat unluckily, had to go through those growing pains in the national spotlight. Now there aren’t any questions or doubts. It’s general acceptance of what these two are. Durant is basketball at its highest purity, Russ is just a badass.
Relevant note to wrap up with: Durant is still just 24, Westbrook is still just 24. Still growing, still learning, still developing, still evolving. They still haven’t figured it out. The best is yet to come.