December 29, 2011
The Oklahoma City Thunder are favorites to represent the West in the NBA Finals this season and remain one of the most exciting teams in the league. Beneath those plaudits, though, there's brewing tension between stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Whether overblown or not, their relationship doesn't seem quite perfect. And even if things were at one point fine, media consideration of the issue -- Bill Simmons has written about the issue at length, and so did we in our Thunder preview -- has turned it into something that everyone must acknowledge in some form.
For the most part, the discussion has been theoretical rather than based on several events. However, on Tuesday night, that perceived tension turned into something a little more tangible. Late in the second quarter of the team's 98-95 road win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Westbrook passed to an open Thabo Sefolosha for a corner three. Sefolosha passed up the shot, which caused Westbrook to tell him to "shoot the (expletive) ball." Several teammates, including Durant, thought he overreacted and tried to calm him down. Then things escalated on the bench, and Durant and Westbrook had to be separated. Probably because they hate each other!
It didn't appear to have anything AT ALL to do with the rumored rift that so many seemingly wants to be true. But they had to be separated more than once as they lashed out at each other. Fans in the first few rows behind the bench even came to their feet as if a fight was breaking out. The two eventually sat at opposite ends of the five-man unit that was sitting while waiting on Thunder coach Scott Brooks to enter the huddle. But when Durant and Westbrook took the court, Durant walked over and patted Westbrook on the back of the head.
Durant on the altercation: "We're going to disagree sometimes, like I've always been saying. But I'm behind him 110 percent, and he's the same way with me. And you seen when we came on the floor we clicked and everything started to work from there." [...]
Westbrook was actually right when he demanded Thabo shoot. Westbrook just handled it the wrong way. Although Westbrook chose his words poorly, his reaction was no different than things I've seen from Chris Paul when demanding his teammates do something. Initially, I viewed it as a sign of Westbrook's growing leadership and improved confidence in communicating, even if it means getting on someone. He was holding his teammate accountable, something he is obligated to do as the Thunder's floor general. But it looked like he just didn't know when to let it go. [...]
KD and Russ finished the game extremely well. Russ was passing Durant the ball according to the plays being called and there was no sign of resentment or tension. If there is something cancerous about their relationship, you certainly couldn't tell by how they played together after halftime and cheered each other on the rest of the way.
There's much more at that length, so read the whole thing if you want additional context. The story is pretty simple, though: Durant and Westbrook got in a bit of a fight before setting things aside and winning a tough road game against a very good opponent. Oh, and that happened despite Westbrook's worst game ever, in which he shot 0-for-13 and turned it over four times.
[Related: The NBA's top five stories of 2011]
Arguments happen between competitive people, especially when those people are under as much pressure as Durant and Westbrook, young All-Stars on a team expected to make huge strides this season. It's possible that this altercation represents some kind of point of no return in their relationship, but the fact that they came back to win the game together suggests that it was a momentary bump in the road.
The good thing for the Thunder, if this rift between their two stars really does exist, is that winning tends to smooth over a lot of rough edges. As long as the team keeps winning, Durant and Westbrook should be fine. A quick glance at the West landscape suggests there's a good chance that will happen.
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