Yeah, so, about all that “just a regular game” stuff:
Sure, Kevin Durant got the relevant firsts over with last season. Even so, everyone in the universe knew that Wednesday’s nationally televised matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team for whom Durant starred for eight seasons before leaving in free agency in the summer of 2016, Golden State Warriors, the team he joined to win a championship last year, wasn’t going to be “just a regular game.”
The Warriors entered rolling atop the Western Conference. The Thunder are still working out the kinks in the dynamic between reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook and new All-Star teammates Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. There’s still all sorts of unresolved weirdness still left burbling, from the content of those burner-account mesages to KD careening from “F*** all of them” for giving away his number to “If I was on my death bed, I guarantee you Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook would come check on me” in an interview.
There’s still a lot of tension and emotion jam-packed into the Durant-Westbrook and Durant-Oklahoma relationships. Some of it spilled out onto the court of Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday night. Durant and the Warriors slipped, fell and got very, very messy. Westbrook and the Thunder were ready to clean it up, dominating the defending NBA champions in a 108-91 pasting that hinted at the heights this rebooted Thunder roster might be able to reach.
The former teammates engaged in some serious jaw-jacking and trash talk on Wednesday, even going head-to-head — like, literally — after one third-quarter play that saw Westbrook strip Durant’s dribble:
It was all about “competing,” Westbrook told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth on the court after the game. “You know, I’m going to go out and compete every night, and I was just letting him know that.”
(Y’know, because Kevin Durant needs reminding about how amped Russell Westbrook gets.)
Durant tried to smile, clap and chirp his way through the static, seeming for all the world like a 7-foot physical manifestation of every person online who swears He’s Not Mad, But Is Actually Laughing At How Mad You Are, To Be Honest. As he did that, and as he and his teammates sort of meander-sauntered their way through the motions, Westbrook did what he’s rarely done in the early going this year and what he did best last year: kill everything.
Westbrook opened the game shot out of a cannon, setting up Steven Adams for a floater on the game’s opening play and knocking down his first pull-up jumper on OKC’s next trip. He never slowed down, exploding to the front of the rim en route to 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists before halftime, and playing with an irresistible force that knocked the Warriors back on their heels and kept them there.
With George and Anthony knocking down their jumpers, and George and Andre Roberson putting the clamps on Golden State’s perimeter talent, the Thunder poured it on in the second quarter, heading into intermission with a 65-48 lead. All season long, the Warriors have crushed opponents coming out of halftime, entering Wednesday outscoring their opponents by nearly seven points per third quarter. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has struggled to hold onto big leads, blowing double-digit advantages in six of their nine losses.
On this night, though — against this opponent — Westbrook wasn’t about to let a damn thing slip.
Westbrook scored 13 points, snagged three steals and dished two dimes in the third, propelling the Thunder forward as they pushed the lead to 26 in the quarter’s final minute.
On a lot of nights, the Warriors — a team with more firepower than any other, capable of erasing massive deficits in no time flat — might be capable of rising out of that kind of hole. This wasn’t one of them. Oklahoma City’s length, athleticism and ball pressure gave the Warriors fits all night, forcing Golden State into 22 turnovers that led to 34 Thunder points.
“Their defensive effort was great,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “I thought they completely outplayed us, outcoached us. It was just their night. It was absolutely their night. They brought the energy, they brought the juice, they brought the intelligence. We didn’t bring any of that.”
Klay Thompson missed nine of his 12 shots. Durant posted a relatively quiet 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting. Stephen Curry led the way with 24 on a 9-for-18 mark and six assists, but Golden State as a team shot just 41.3 percent from the floor and 10-for-31 from beyond the arc.
It was a far cry from the Warriors’ typical production, and not nearly enough to get in the Thunder’s stratosphere on Wednesday. As a result, Oklahoma City snapped a seven-game losing streak against Golden State — their most recent previous win came in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, before everyone’s world turned.
Perhaps most importantly, though: Westbrook (34 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, four steals), George (20 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, two blocks, a team-high 10 deflections) and Anthony (22 points, five rebounds) shined together as the Thunder held onto a lead for a change and stopped a two-game skid to get to 8-9 on the season.
“Hopefully, this is the start of a turning point for us,” Westbrook told Hubbarth. “We’d like to be able to get a few wins in a row, man. Hopefully tonight was the start, and hopefully we can continue off this game.”
Whichever direction the Thunder and Warriors go from here, the sheer naked emotion on display on Wednesday suggests that the next time these two teams meet — and the time after that, and the time after that, forever and ever, amen — we’re still going to feel compelled to keep an eye on every interaction between KD and Russ. Even if, after the game, they continued to insist that it really was just one of 82.
“It’s not about who’s in each other’s faces or — that stuff is not real, so please don’t believe it,” Durant said. “All the fans, they lying to y’all. It’s about basketball, and they played a great game, and we didn’t.”
“I mean, I play the same way every night,” Westbrook said. “If it’s against Kevin, if it’s against — who we play Friday, Detroit, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Smith on Saturday — it don’t matter who it is. On the court, I don’t got no friends. Only friend I have is the basketball. That’s it.”
Here’s where we remind you that Westbrook has extremely real beef with Jackson, his former backup, and that Smith, a rookie point guard with the Dallas Mavericks, made a point after his first matchup with Russ of noting how surprised he was by how many foul calls the MVP seemed to get. In that sense, yes, you can almost buy that it’s just another game for Westbrook, since every Westbrook game is a never-ending battle for ultimate supremacy against every enemy, real or imagined, who might cross his path.
Durant, though? That one’s a harder sell, no matter how hard he’s trying to sell it.
“You can’t let emotion seep into business, man,” Durant said. “The emotion around the arena, around the city, I’m sure, was a little higher than it was on the court. […] It’s just ball, man. He’s competitive. I’m competitive. We like to go at it, both of us, and that’s just part of the game. So I respect it. I got nothing but love for him.”
It sure didn’t look like the feeling was mutual on Wednesday. Kevin Durant can downplay the drama and keep trying to smile through the spectacle. It’s just hard to imagine that Russell Westbrook will ever going to stop trying to wipe that smile off his face.
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