OAKLAND, Calif. – With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the depths of their rift has to be determined by what isn’t said. The once-incredible partnership isn’t on speaking terms, Westbrook declared after the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder staged their latest feisty but mostly non-competitive game Wednesday at Oracle Arena. They had a brief exchange of words in the third quarter of the Warriors’ 121-100 romp, but Westbrook turned his back on Durant and abruptly ended the conversation with his silence. So, keep on waiting for these two to hash it out, shout it out or hug it out, because that moment won’t come anytime soon, if at all.
For now, fans, media and social-media dwellers have to exaggerate or create fictitious situations to build up some hype that neither Durant nor Westbrook is interested in generating. That’s how Westbrook shouting, “Thanks, Jamie!” nearly 15 minutes before the Warriors lost to Cleveland on Christmas day led to speculation that he actually bellowed, “Thanks, Kyrie!” That’s how quick some were to assume that Durant was the intended target when Westbrook was caught on camera after Wednesday’s game using a derogatory term to prohibit Enes Kanter from speaking to someone.
“We live for controversy in this world right now. That’s important for some,” Durant told The Vertical after scoring a season-high 40 points on just 16 shots against his former team.
No, Durant and Westbrook aren’t on the best of terms, but they have not granted others admission into their internal drama. They are settling into life without each other, expanding their games and finding comfort in what they are becoming. Durant is a more efficient scorer who no longer has to worry about removing bad shots from his diet because he gets so many good looks in Golden State’s free-flowing offense. Westbrook is one of the two frontrunners for the league’s MVP award, blitzing the stat sheet by turning the sublime into the routine, all while averaging an unconscionable triple-double.
“The outside is taking it more serious than probably we are,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’m out there doing my thing. I don’t have time to focus on things that really don’t matter to me.”
For eight years, Durant and Westbrook shared the same objectives: to establish themselves as NBA superstars, lift the Thunder into contenders and eventually win a title. They got two of the three, with Durant leaving to chase a championship with a difficult decision that means he now has to win or get slandered. Westbrook is under no pressure and his legend only grows stronger as a solo act. Watching them on opposing sides might still appear to be weird, but not to them.
“Not anymore,” Durant told The Vertical. “First game was. But now, it’s just competing. Going out there and playing as hard as I can and trying to help my team win. It’s simple.”
Debating if they are better off apart is unfair until Westbrook has a team that is competitive enough to actually challenge Durant and the Warriors. But the Thunder are a considerable team or a few huge trades from getting there. Until then, Westbrook remains the league’s most dynamic one-man show. His talents are garnering more appreciation than they ever would had Durant stayed. And that’s one of the many awkward and disappointing aspects of this divorce.
Since Durant was among the first to ascend to stardom, Westbrook was cast into a sidekick role in which he was never comfortable. He resisted any boxes being formed around him and rebelled against any attempts to limit his talents. That stretch when Durant was injured two seasons ago suggested more was there, and the first half of this season has only confirmed what Westbrook always believed about his greatness and leadership abilities.
An extremely young and inexperienced Thunder team is in playoff contention and winning games few expected because Westbrook refuses to be intimidated by doing everything. But these two games against the Warriors have painfully revealed the separation of the two franchises, which shouldn’t be surprising considering Durant’s departure eliminated Golden State’s closest Western Conference rival. Though he has played with a non-combustible rage, Westbrook had to be most hurt by Durant’s departure because it put him that much further away from a ring.
Westbrook’s greatest success this season has been hogging some of the spotlight from a Warriors team that is only two games off last season’s record-breaking, 73-game pace. But a historic run of triple-doubles and another scoring title might not even yield an MVP because of what James Harden has been doing in Houston. And after Durant once again destroyed his former team’s dreams with a crushing, almost flawless performance, Warriors coach Steve Kerr made a case for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy staying in Oakland, where Stephen Curry has made sure it has resided the past two seasons.
“[Durant’s] probably not going to win MVP because other people out there that are playing extremely well. I don’t think anybody is more efficient,” Kerr said. “He’s having a fantastic season, but it’s kind of going under the radar, in some ways, because of what a lot of other players are doing out there.”
That Durant’s best and second-best scoring outings of the season have come against his former team are no coincidence, no matter how consistent he has been all season, or how much he tries to downplay the situation. The Thunder can thank one of the Oracle Arena rims for making Durant look human in the demolition as he missed a breakaway dunk that led to a humorous reaction from Draymond Green, who playfully asked what the problem was with a shrug. “I tried to dunk it too hard,” Durant said.
Westbrook did open up the lines of communication in the most Westbrook way, as he came storming down the lane, cocked back the ball and jammed as a late-reacting Durant tried to contest. Westbrook glared at Durant and scolded him with “Don’t jump!” Durant waited above the 3-point line, begged for the ball and Curry set him up for one of Durant’s five makes from long distance. A few possessions later, Durant drew a foul, plopped up and walked toward Westbrook to say a few words. Durant was so focused on Westbrook that he missed Curry attempting to give him a high-five. Curry hilariously slapped his own hand.
“You got to sit closer to the game. You maybe didn’t see clearly,” Westbrook said of the exchange.
Durant also refused to share what was said: “He dunked the ball. I ran down court, called for the ball, shot a 3 and made it.”
Through these first two games, the most heated exchanges involving Durant and Westbrook have been them getting into it with opposing big men. In the Nov. 3 matchup, Durant had some trash talk with Kanter, one of more vocal critics of Durant’s move. And Wednesday, Westbrook crashed into a wall of Zaza Pachulia in the second quarter that resulted in a flagrant foul 1 for Pachulia and a promise for retribution. If that collision contributed to a momentary mental lapse in which Westbrook made one of the most egregious traveling violations ever – five steps before a dribble – no one can truly say. But Westbrook certainly won’t forget – especially after he later realized that Pachulia stood over him as he writhed on the floor in pain.
“He hit me kind of hard,” Westbrook said. “But it’s all right. I’m gonna get his ass back. Straight up. … Whenever that is, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I don’t play that game.”
Pachulia was dismissive of Westbrook’s threat, making a comment that effectively summed up where these franchises stand. “I can’t worry about those kind of comments. I’m part of the amazing team. We have a great goal to win the championship,” Pachulia said. “That team is not there. So that team might be thinking about other stuff, like getting me back. OK, you can get me back. But this is my 14th year, we all know that my game is to play hard, not dirty.”
Being at home against the Thunder has provided a shield for Durant while also allowing him to get more comfortable in being a Warrior: He’s only needed 40 shots to score 79 points and hasn’t heard one boo. But Durant will be forced to confront his past in the next two meetings, the first arriving Feb. 11. Durant doesn’t know how he will feel as he steps into Chesapeake Energy Arena as an enemy, but he is certain that it won’t be a celebration of the eight years of great play that he provided for the NBA’s closest equivalent to a rabid, college crowd.
“I’m sure it won’t be a warm welcome,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’m smart enough to check the temperature on this whole situation. I know that. But I can’t predict. I don’t even know how I’ll feel. To me, it doesn’t matter. I know what I did. The people around, who were close to me, they know what I did. And that’s all that really matters. I can’t lose sleep over it.”
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: