When Oklahoma City entered this postseason, it was on the back of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And, on their backs, the Thunder faced criticism. The talk of the Thunder not being able to get it done with this nucleus, and that these two stars just simply couldn’t shine bright enough together to win the whole thing, dominated talk. Yet, the Thunder dispatched the Mavericks, and then the San Antonio Spurs, the team the league had anointed as the clear rival to the Golden State Warriors to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
And in that series against San Antonio, it was the same superstar duo who had Oklahoma City on its back. The Spurs were smacked by Durant and Westbrook, the pair running roughshod over the ill-prepared Spurs with their length and athleticism. Even with their shock upset of San Antonio, the Thunder entered the Conference Finals series – against a team who many considered the greatest team of all time – as big underdogs.
They again relished the outsider role, stealing Game 1 in Oakland, followed by dominating performances in Games 3 and 4 back at home. The Thunder pushed the Warriors to the ropes, with all of the doubt and criticism shifting, for the first time, to Stephen Curry and the record-breaking Golden State team.
The pressure was turned toward the Warriors as Durant and Westbrook combined to have an amazing first four games, with Westbrook putting up triple-doubles and Durant absolutely filling the scoring column. The two lifted the teammates around them, quietly dispelling a longtime criticism of the duo that they were just a two-man band.
Steven Adams burst onto the scene as a respected enforcer and tough big man, with Kanter and Adam providing a real dominant post threat, along with Serge Ibaka. They frustrated Draymond Green into the worst games of his career, and looked like the team that had finally figured out Golden State’s ‘death lineup’. Andre Roberson turned into a big-time role-player, playing great defense on Klay Thompson and Steph on switches and rolls. Big shots were finding the net from the Thunder supporting cast, and the lights around Westbrook and Durant shined bright.
And then Game 5 happened, with Golden State rallying and taking a game on their home turf to stay alive. But it wasn’t pretty, and Westbrook and Durant still looked strong, even as Durant shot a really inefficient 40-point game. The signs of cracks began to show.
If they were showing in game five, they quickly shored up in much of Game 6. The Thunder rode the crowd and atmosphere to take control of the decisive match quickly, and looked ready to close out Golden State. Curry continued to struggle, but as they entered the fourth quarter, the Thunder had still yet to really shake the defending NBA champions.
And then, in the biggest quarter of the young careers of the two Thunder superstars, things came unraveled. Durant’s shot disappeared, as it had most of Game 6, with his only real consistent offense coming at the free-throw line.
The two stars that had carved out a new path in these last two rounds are now all of a sudden in familiar territory: squandering their lead and with their backs against the wall.
Durant and Westbrook are back in this divide, with media members wondering if the two of them can come together at the same time, and if they can get over the hump together. Durant provided scoring in Games 5 and 6, but his inefficiency was felt. Late in the fourth, with the lead caving away, Durant forced three different shots early in the shot clock that seemed out of short on the offense. Westbrook didn’t provide much relief, forcing three inexcusable turnovers in the game’s final minutes.
Anything that could go wrong in the final moments did for the Thunder as all the demons thought to be exercised earlier in these series came back with a force.
All of the Durant speculation is back, with questions as to whether he is at peace with this team, and whether this is where he wants his future. The Westbrook questions are also back: whether he can truly lead this team, and if he is a winning point guard in the NBA. But the biggest criticism that has returned for these two stars is whether they can pull their teammates with them to a series win.
.@KDTrey5 – ‘(Game 7) is what you dream about. We have to take advantage of it.’
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) May 30, 2016
This is not the first time Durant and Westbrook have faced this adversity. It’s not even the first time this month. Each time before this, they have heard the bell and responded.
This time was demoralizing, sure. But if any duo can respond, these are the two that can do it. The only issue is that they may be facing a better combination across the way; one that has also responded to their own criticism.
Something is going to have to give.
We’ll find out Monday night.