Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant have Thunder looking like champion contenders
LOS ANGELES – The framing of Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook as the young star with suspect basketball temperament and judgment has been replaced with that of a shrewd, assured star missing a far different denominator: fashion sense. Out of the winning locker room this genius talent bounded late Saturday night, wearing firehouse-red pants and that familiar shirt of Crayola blotches.
His agent, Thad Foucher, stepped back and gave him the once over.
"Why didn't you tell me you were going to wear those pants?" Foucher busted on him. " 'Cause I would've worn my green ones."
Westbrook laughed, and nodded, and walked together with Kevin Durant across the corridor to the interview room. They had completed a final, furious push to wrest away Game 4 of this Western Conference semifinal series, secure a 3-1 lead and a chance to close out the Lakers on Monday night in Oklahoma City. All this does is get the Thunder back where they had been a year ago, the conference final, back to a place where losing won't be so easily accepted as part of the passage for a championship upstart.
To win the Western Conference, Westbrook and Durant will have had to push through the cores of Dallas, Los Angeles and likely San Antonio – teams that have been responsible for seven of the NBA's past decade of championships. Birth certificates suggest that these Thunder stars are still far ahead of schedule, but the unleashing of this devastating talent leaves everyone's eyes telling them differently.
[Related: Spurs still rolling in playoffs while 'super teams' show cracks]
People seemed to have so little patience with Westbrook a season ago. Here Westbrook was, 22 years old, running these Thunder, and the rashest of voices declared that his partnership with Durant was doomed out of some wayward belief that he was too self-absorbed to acknowledge Durant as the superior scorer.
A year later, some wonder whether an Oklahoma City championship would install Kevin Durant as the best player in the NBA. And yet, others can rightfully debate a different question: Is Durant even the best player on the Thunder?
As starry ambitious partnerships go, Westbrook and Durant have evolved the way sensible minds within the Thunder organization knew they would: Sure, steady and ultimately with tremendous traction. Trade Westbrook? The Thunder refused to ever entertain the idea. No one was surprised when they refused to do a deal for Boston's Rajon Rondo, but perhaps a few were when they determined that they weren't interested with including him into a deal for Chris Paul.
With Westbrook and Durant sharing the burden in the final minutes, staying strong, staying together, and forever staying on the assault, they forced the Lakers into missteps. Los Angeles' response to losing included Kobe Bryant calling out Pau Gasol's reluctance to shoot, and Andrew Bynum's anger with the Thunder's frontal defense causing his coaches and teammates to stop finding ways to get him the ball.
[Related: Kobe Bryant blames Pau Gasol for Lakers' Game 4 collapse ]
Whatever. The Thunder were thrilled to leave the Lakers passing blame, thrilled to be a victory away from a likely meeting with the Spurs in the conference final. For the Thunder, they won't be crossing a new threshold with the conference semifinal victory over the Lakers. They came this far a year ago, only to unravel to the champion Mavericks. Westbrook's reputation was delivered some blows in that series, and unfairly so.
For Westbrook, the issue was never a desire to upstage Durant as the Thunder's top scorer. Often, sources said, his frustrations were with offensive sets that too often unraveled late in shot clocks. Play calls for Durant never materialized, and as the seconds ticked down, Westbrook was left out of necessity – not selfishness – to probe one-on-one for shots. For many, the appearance often looked like a failure to coexist, when, in fact, it was the Thunder's failure to function.
Through it all on Saturday night, Durant and Westbrook were the Game 4 stars to deliver the highest levels of poise and precision in the telltale final minutes. With his dizzying array of drives and jump shots, Westbrook dropped 10 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter. "He has a battery pack in the back," James Harden said. "He goes."
Durant had come hard too, the biggest shot a dramatic 3-pointer to obliterate a 98-98 tie with 13.7 seconds left in the game. Durant delivered 11 of his 31 points in the fourth, getting stronger, surer, with the Thunder fighting back from double-digit deficits all night. Durant had missed two free throws with 2:33 left, leaving the Thunder to trail 96-94. Only, Westbrook kept delivering him the ball, kept his belief.
"Russell had the confidence in me that I was going to make the next shot," Durant said.
And he did to tie the game at 96, and finally, he won it with the long 3-pointer. Biggest of all perhaps, Durant embraced the chance of defending Bryant in the final five minutes. Bryant had been magnificent most of the night – finishing with 38 points – but the long 6-foot-10 frame of Durant made the final minutes most unproductive for Bryant, leaving the Lakers star to shoot ill-angled, contested shots in the final minutes.
Deep into this Western Conference semifinal series, deep into these playoffs, Durant and Westbrook would come and go out of this news conference together. They're so calm, so serene, and yet there's a force of nature about them on the basketball floor. Two years ago, they lost to the Lakers in a first-round series, and there was Bryant passing them as they left a news conference. A door swung open, and Bryant stood face-to-face with them. The Lakers had survived that series, and Bryant knew it.
"You are two bad, bad men," Bryant said, hugging them, and nodding in agreement with his own assessment of the problem awaiting everyone in the NBA. Two years later, the Lakers will likely bow out of this series, and the Spurs will be the final old guard left in the West for Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder to conquer.
United they stand in the West, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming so hard now, coming together, and Kobe was right two years ago: These are bad, bad men on the basketball court.
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