I was one of the doubters. Just a few nights ago, I scoured NBA statistics looking for the hole in the Oklahoma City Thunder. My initial blame lay at the feet of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder’s quick and temperamental point guard.
The criticism of the Thunder thus far this season has been the sporadic play of their two superstars. Kevin Durant and Westbrook rarely have games where both play to their full potential, and it’s been quite the road for both stars as they headed into this series against San Antonio.
The season has been a rollercoaster that the Thunder faithful are all too familiar with, with blame being thrown into the direction of Westbrook, but also toward first-year coach Billy Donovan. The blame game has be prominent in OKC, with each season following the NBA Finals berth the Thunder got against LeBron James and the Miami Heat bringing another postseason where the Thunder hit a wall.
With Durant’s impending free agency this offseason, many analysts saw this postseason as the last chance the Thunder had to make Durant believe this was a real contender, and to get over the hump themselves. During their first round matchup, the Thunder romped over the Dallas Mavericks in five games, a dominating display save for one slip-up in game two.
The next round has seen much more of a challenge, with the Thunder heavy underdogs to the San Antonio Spurs, who are enjoying one of the best seasons in NBA history. After dropping the first game, OKC would rally and win the second, but drop the third to go down 2-1.
Of course, it was by nature, that the fans and media would run quick to find the source of the blame for the struggles of the Thunder. And by nature, it would fall where it always has: directly at the feet of Russell Westbrook. Especially with Durant’s impending free agency, the echoes of the two Thunder stars not being able to play together rang out, and criticism of the brazen guard exploded.
Even I, your humble NBA analyst, spent all day following game four, scouring statistics, seeking to make the case that Westbrook was not only bad for his team, but was wasting the prime of Kevin Durant.
But instead, I was faced with the fact that not only was it seemingly not the case, instead it seemed as if there was no Durant without Westbrook, or vice versa. Durant, who had struggled in the first three games, was given a pass for his bad play simply based on Westbrook being a teammate, as if, suddenly, Westbrook was affecting the shots that Durant was taking not going in.
And I found myself rethinking my opinion, yet still convinced that Westbrook was a problem.
But the stories continued. Especially following the struggles of Game 3, the Thunder were faced with mounting pressure and an all-but-dead prognosis heading in to Game 4.
And yet they won.
Behind the spectacular play of Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder routed the Spurs in front of their home fans.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 13, 2016
Yet the stories continued. And the expectation remained that the Spurs would regain the series advantage at home, and the Thunder would go back to struggling.
Yet in San Antonio, even with a struggling Durant, the Thunder rode the back of their much-maligned star guard to a shocking win to take a series lead. Westbrook posted a near triple-double, and carried the Thunder down the stretch.
But officiating controversy at the end gave the next dismissal of the Thunder, citing a play at the end where the Spurs seemed to foul Westbrook, instead being called late and leading to an and-one.
And so, heading into Game 6, even with a 3-2 series advantage and coming home, the Thunder were perceived as shaky and weak. Even though the signs were there, with the Thunder’s newfound “big” lineup dominating the Spurs lineup on the board, and the points in the paints swinging to the fresh legs of the Thunder. Most analysts, including myself, were still quick doubt the Thunder, and just waiting for the forgone conclusion of a Spurs comeback.
But, like Games 4 and 5, that moment never game. Instead, the Spurs met the shredder from the opening whistle. The first half saw the worst of the Spurs this season, facing their biggest deficit in franchise history. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Spurs put the pressure on.
And even then, in the final glimmer of hope for the Thunder doubters, it looked like OKC would let it slip away. The fear crept as the Spurs cut the lead to 11. With 3:15 to go in the game, Duncan took the ball to the hole to cut the lead down fewer than 10. Instead, he was met by Serge Ibaka, who sent the ball flying to the hands of Westbrook, who found Durant for the dunk.
The Spurs wouldn’t let the momentum die, and kept clawing to cut the lead back down to 11. The pace of the game seemed to swing to the Spurs’ favor.
But with 2:24 to go, from 27 feet, Westbrook buried a three to put the dagger into not just the Spurs, but also all the doubt he had encountered to this point. Instead of losing because of Westbrook, the Thunder found themselves winning because of him.
But maybe it’s been that way all along. Or maybe, much to the chagrin of journalists like me, the truth actually lies somewhere in the middle: where the best of the Thunder is between both Durant and Westbrook, and that the Thunder aren’t better off losing one of the two.
An answer that seems so simple after the fact yet was so up for debate leading to this point: the Thunder are better with both of their All-NBA superstars.
Yet make no mistake, the Thunder will be underdogs to the Warriors. They’ll come into game one hearing the praise of the other team, and following any coming loss, they’ll face the same criticism.
But don’t think they wouldn’t want it any other way.