HOUSTON – Kevin Durant – dressed, coifed and preparing to leave his locker for the interview podium – could still sense the emptiness of the room. Suddenly, it occurred to him that this was one more basketball duty that would go on without Russell Westbrook, one more walk Durant would have to make alone in these playoffs.
As the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar spotted one of the franchise's young basketball staffers resplendent with hipster frames, Durant told him: "You're going to have to poke out the lens if you're going to be Russell's stand-in with me."
For two long days of grim facades and dire diagnoses, a most comforting sight resurfaced late Saturday: Durant tilted back his head and laughed. He was tired. He was relieved. He was still a little dizzy, a little discombobulated. Durant's instinct, his DNA, demanded dominance out of himself, and he desperately chased it on Saturday night.
In this 104-101 Game 3 victory over the Houston Rockets, his 41 points, his clinching 3-pointer inside the final minute, his 47-plus minutes, his broadening burden of ownership and, yes, his sense of genuine loss – took its toll.
"I sense it's been an emotional 48 hours for him, there's no way around it," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
Westbrook isn't so much a teammate, as much as a force of nature. For five years, Westbrook never missed a game. He never missed practices. Durant and Westbrook were together in the preseason, the regular season, All-Star weekends and the NBA playoffs. They were together for USA Basketball in the world championships and Olympics.
They were inseparable, and now Westbrook's season-ending knee surgery separated them in these playoffs.
"It didn't feel the same," Durant said.
From the hotel to the locker room to the basketball court, everything changes without an All-Star point guard. As the Thunder prepared for Game 3 in Houston, Westbrook underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in Colorado. Since Westbrook's diagnosis on Friday, Durant didn't change character with his teammates. He's never been too big on telling everyone how to proceed, as much as showing them.
"From the performance itself, you could see he had thought a lot about everything, thought about what he's going to have to do for us," Thunder guard Derek Fisher told Yahoo! Sports.
The performance was powerful, if inefficient. Durant had the ball in his hands to the start game, dictating tempo and turbulence and constructing for these Thunder a 26-point lead. From bringing the ball down the court to lunging at Jeremy Lin for a steal as the Rockets guard called timeout, the way Patrick Beverley had done on the Game 2 play to injure Westbrook, there hung an element of tribute in the air.
Nevertheless, Oklahoma City lost the lead, largely because Durant struggled to make too few of his 30 shots, because Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison missed 21 of 27 tries together.
At times, yes, Durant tried too hard, but the statement to his teammates was unmistakable in the absence of Westbrook: I can do this. Most of all, he needs to show them: We can do this.
When Game 3 was on the line, Durant still made the plays for victory. His 3-pointer with 41 seconds left bounced high in the air, tipped the backboard and every corner of the rim. "Lucky shot," James Harden called it.
Harden would've gladly taken it. In the telltale moments of the game, Harden missed two free throws with a chance to make it 93-93 within the final five minutes, and left his feet on two terrible passes for turnovers within the final two minutes.
For all the gumption the Rockets showed to fight back from 26 points down, they were without precision and poise when it was time to close out the victory.
For the Thunder, though, securing Game 3 was important for the franchise. A 3-0 series lead gives them the flexibility and time to search for the proper balance and style without Westbrook. They need to reshape themselves, and they need time to do it without being trapped in a fight for their playoff lives.
Oklahoma City can still emerge out of the Western Conference, but it won't happen with Durant needing to validate his genius with shots and scoring.
"The mentality – that's something we need every night out of Kevin," Fisher told Y! Sports. "But the minutes, the shot attempts, that's something that's still day to day. In this league, no matter how good you are, teams are not going to let a guy go to work on them for 48 minutes."
These Thunder can still score points without Westbrook, but something far more precious blew out of the room with him. The power of Westbrook's persona and disposition and relentless nature is real and connected to the core of this franchise.
"That's the most difficult thing for us to sustain now," Fisher said. "As time goes on, we're going to miss his presence, his passion, his fearlessness. All those things are out of place now. How do we fill that vacuum left without Russell?"
[Also: Bulls stun Nets in triple OT]
Slowly, surely, the Thunder will search out that answer for themselves. Everything was still so fresh, so raw, on Saturday night, and perhaps that was the reason Kevin Durant delivered such desperation and determination.
And ultimately, in the quiet moments of an emptying locker room, the best player on these Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't stop thinking about chasing this championship without Russell Westbrook. He couldn't stop thinking about preparing for Game 3 without him, playing it and ultimately walking down the corridor to talk about it.
They didn't just lose a ballplayer on these Thunder, but a force of nature. All these minutes, all these shots and the formula on the first night of the rest of the season without him felt a little off for Durant, a little too forced. Always, his heart, his intentions, are in the right place. The Thunder need to help him get his game there, too.
He had a great laugh over his line to the staff on Saturday night, but these past five seasons have taught Kevin Durant a most unmistakable lesson: For Russell Westbrook, there's no stand-in. No substitute.
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