They aren’t the young-gun, hot-shot kids who ran up and down the floor, enticing the exuberant Oklahoma City faithful with their youthful, “We’re just happy to be here” persona. In many cases, that ship has sailed, almost three years ago.
Nowadays, the Thunder are a much more complete team top to bottom than they were in 2012 when they ran through the Western Conference and into the Finals. And that team had James Harden, the frontrunner (for now) MVP this season in Houston. After trading away disgruntled point guard Reggie Jackson for center Enes Kanter from Utah, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler from Detroit, OKC has all the pieces in place.
They have outside shooting to space the floor with shooting guards Anthony Marrow and Singler. They acquired SG Dion Waiters from Cleveland earlier in the year, who fills the “James Harden” role off the bench, providing much-needed scoring as the 6th man. They lead the league in rebounds at 47.2 per-game and their front court only improved with the addition of Kanter and his 12.5 RPG to go along with PF Serge Ibaka’s inside presence. They have length and perimeter defending across the board, and yet all of this means very little if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren’t doing the things that make that Oklahoma City fan base lose their mind especially come April.
The 2014-2015 season has hardly been a walk in the park for the two superstars. Durant has missed nearly half of the season with a foot injury so far and has been in-and-out of the lineup with lingering issues with the same diagnosis. Westbrook broke a bone in his hand in the 2nd game of the season and the Thunder dropped into a 3-12 start in an unforgiving Western Conference.
As Westbrook and Durant returned, the team got back to its winning ways as you would expect. As of now, the Thunder are in the 8th spot in the West, winners of 7 of their last 9. Except once again Durant is out of the lineup as he recently underwent a minor surgery on his right foot once again and will be re-evaluated in a week.
Not known for being the outspoken one of the two, Durant has voiced his opinion on a variety topics more so this season than in the past and one thing is clear: Kevin Durant is OK with being the bad guy.
And no I’m not talking about those cheesy “KD is not nice” commercials trying to portray Durant as something he once wasn’t. Fans called him the “Slim Reaper” referring to his thin, lengthy body and his cold-blooded game on the hardwood. But now, Durant actually seems to be slipping deeper into that role, as he grows frustrated with his lack of consistency to stay on the court this season, as well as STILL having answer questions about the James Harden trade and his looming free-agency next summer.
“You guys really don’t know S—.” Durant told reporters during All-Star weekend. “You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next.” Durant would go onto say, and in truth he has a point.
The perception of the Thunder this season has been as up and down as a teeter-totter. At the beginning of the year we were already counting them out of the playoffs without Durant and Westbrook. Then they both come back, along with the addition of Dion Waiters and they start to get going. Then word comes out that they’re chemistry issues with Reggie Jackson and Dion Waiters on the court together and so on. Which leads us to present day, without Durant out once again and a new MVP candidate has arisen.
It’s difficult to not notice Russell Westbrook. His off-court style is from another world. His on-court style is from another galaxy. The man plays with a viciousness and ferocity that cannot be matched around the NBA. Take Derrick Rose’s explosiveness and fearlessness to attack the rim pre-knee injuries, Damian Lillard’s lust for hitting cold-blooded shots and Kevin Garnett’s intensity that resonates so fondly with the crowd, and you come out with Russell Westbrook and then some.
For as long as he has been in the NBA, the running joke has been about Westbrook’s need to get up an obscene amount of shots per game. Sometimes the shots are questionable, especially when 4-time scoring champion and reigning MVP is on the floor and is already one of the most efficient shot taker’s and maker’s in league history. And while Durant admits that it sometimes drives him crazy, he still lets Westbrook get his, because Russell Westbrook in heat check mode is otherworldly.
With Durant out, its Westbrook’s team for time being, no matter how much we will argue whose team it really is, all we know is that he has been (understandably) tearing through opponents and has turned into a MVP candidate within the last 10 games:
- Points per game: 30.9
- Assists per game: 9.8
- Rebounds per game: 8.5
- PER (For the season): 29.17 (2nd in the league)
- 3 triple-doubles in the month of February alone
In no way (at least that we know of) is there a rift between Durant and Westbrook. Sure they butt heads with each other, that’s what great players do. With both in their mid-20’s, they’re both entering their primes and could go down as one of the greatest NBA duo’s of all-time if they stick together. But there is the elephant in the room, it seems as if they must win a championship this season or next year to keep the dynamic tandem together. With all the pressure on coach Scott Brooks as well as the organization to keep Durant around by having him sign an extension, the Thunder at least need to reach the Finals.
And maybe that’s why Durant and Westbrook are on a mission to prove everyone wrong, whether people like them (or what they say) or not. Sitting in the 8th seed with only a 1.5 game lead on New Orleans, the Thunder would play the Warriors in the first round if the season ended today. That’s already a death sentence of a playoff schedule, let alone what would come after if they could take down the league’s top team so far.
But if the Thunder continue to play with a chip on their shoulder and an F-you attitude towards the rest of the league, they’re a handful for any opponent. Russ and KD can and have taken the Thunder far, incorporate the most complete supporting cast in both their tenure’s and you have a realistic title contender, regardless of what seed they end up in. It’s also a real possibility that Durant and Westbrook become only the 2nd pair of teammates (in back-to-back seasons) to win an MVP. The last to do it? Cousy and Russell in ’56 and ’57, nearly 60 years ago for the Celtics.
Still, Oklahoma City’s mindset is not about individual awards. As Russ said a few weeks ago on the Dan Patrick Show, “I mean, you can be on your own and win a few games and then go home in the summer, but I’d rather win games and have a chance to win a championship every year.”
I don’t know for a fact, but I’m sure that’s Durant’s thought process too. Even if it means turning into the bad guys, by all means, they just want to win. No, they need to win.
And I can’t help but to love it.