LOS ANGELES – Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scottie Brooks met with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook individually at the end of last season and gave them the same message: Trust your teammates more. He told his two stars the same thing at the start of this season, saying no matter how great they are, they won't be successful without the help of their teammates.
"I told them that we have to make another jump with our team passing and that it starts with the two of them," Brooks told Yahoo Sports. "We are still a work in progress, but made a jump this year."
Durant and Westbrook showed how they have grown and listened to their coach's advice during the Thunder's 118-112 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 3 of their second round playoff series.
Durant had a game-high 36 points while Westbrook nearly had his second straight triple-double with 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. But it was the contributions of their teammates that ultimately won the game and gave OKC a 2-1 series lead: Serge Ibaka had 20 points and six rebounds. Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler both added 14 points off the bench. The supporting cast also made key shots late in the fourth quarter.
"We've grown leaps and bounds from where were before," Durant said.
Said Westbrook: "Great teams stick together."
The Thunder made it to the NBA Finals two years ago before losing to the Miami Heat. Last season, Westbrook's knee injury in the first round of the playoffs played a big role in the Thunder being eliminated in the second round.
Inexperience, injuries and, yes, selfishness were often cited as reasons why the Thunder couldn't get over the hump. Perhaps the biggest growing pains for Durant and Westbrook was they didn't totally trust their teammates.
"They are trying to find that balance," forward Nick Collison said. "We need them to be aggressive. We need them to score for sure. But I think they are starting to find out the best way for us to play and the best way for us to win."
Thunder veteran guard Derek Fisher had seen this before with two young star teammates in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Bryant and O'Neal shined while also trusting their teammates enough to win three straight championships from 2000-02.
While Durant and Westbrook are close and don't have the same level of friction Bryant and O'Neal did, Fisher does see some similarities.
"That goes for all of the greats," Fisher said. "What makes them great is the supreme confidence they have in themselves, which seems abnormal or uncanny or unfair at times. But that is what really separates them from everybody else. They have the physical gifts of a great athlete, but mentally and psychologically they believe they are the best in the world.
"So sometimes it takes longer for a certain amount of trust in other people to develop. But I think these guys have been great as they've grown up in their 20s, giving more and more rope to other guys on the team and really allowing our team to grow and mature."
Durant was forced to do that this season when Westbrook was sidelined. Durant provided much of the needed scoring to make up for Westbrook's absence, but Jackson played so well he became a candidate for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. Ibaka continued to show he was one of the NBA's best defensive players.
"We're just trusting each other," Jackson said. "We've been through a few things since the loss of Russ last year."
Westbrook has been criticized for sometimes focusing too much on his own scoring, but he learned a lot during his absence, saying he now has a better idea where his teammates like the ball. Jackson said the Thunder's supporting cast was able to grow their confidence when they continued to win without Westbrook. Signing Butler late in the season also added a trusted veteran scorer to the roster.
"We've been a lot better than in the past passing the ball," Collison said. "We still have our moments where we struggle in that area. But I think those guys, with some maturity, are seeing that it's necessary in the game. The game is easier for them if we move the ball, get the defense moving and not allow the defense to key on those two guys."
The Thunder entered the fourth quarter in Game 3 down 90-86 to the Clippers. Durant had 29 points through three quarters while Westbrook had 17 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. The expectation was Durant and Westbrook would take over offensively in the fourth quarter for the Thunder to win.
Butler, however, was the leading scorer for the Thunder in the quarter with nine points, including a 3-pointer on a pass from Durant with 5:52 left to give OKC the lead for good. Ibaka's put-back dunk with four minutes left extended that lead. And Jackson made four free throws in the final 22.7 seconds to close out the victory.
"Russ and Kevin play hard on offense and attack on offense and pass when you're open," Ibaka said. "That gives everybody confidence. Last year was last year. This year they are getting better and learning the game better offensively and [passing] when I'm open, Thabo or whoever. They pass the right pass."
Durant and Westbrook combined for 54 points while no other Thunder player scored over 12 in a 122-105 loss in Game 1 to the Clippers. Durant and Westbrook combined for 63 points, 19 assists and 22 rebounds in a 112-101 Game 2 victory over the Clippers, but Clippers coach Doc Rivers expressed concern about the Thunder's supporting cast playing a key role in that victory. OKC's role players again contributed in Game 3.
"All of them played well," Rivers said.
In Oklahoma City, every billboard and ad about the Thunder is team oriented. There is nothing that portrays only Durant, this season's MVP, or Westbrook. It's the policy of Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
Durant and Westbrook also appear to have bought into that team-is-everything belief. "We play hard and believe in each other," Durant said. "We believe anything can happen."
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