January 16, 2019

By James Holas

Breakups are rarely pleasant, and the end of kevin Durant’s tenure in Oklahoma City was no different. The relationship between superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has been thoroughly, completely and fully explored by now, and the build up to the first Oklahoma City Thunder-Golden State Warriors game of the year sounded more like promo for a reunion episode for a sordid reality show like The Real World than the analysis of an NBA game, and with good reason.

And much like an episode of trashy TV, the outcome was both expected and underwhelming; in a game overshadowed by the off court drama, the final score was almost guaranteed to be anticlimactic. The Warriors won the game, both on the scoreboard and on the psychological battle field, outscoring the Thunder 37 to 11 in the second quarter and strolling out of the Oracle with a thorough 122-96 victory.

We can talk about how our two protagonists made a show of not acknowledging each other, or about Enes Kanter talking trash to Durant, whilst OKC was getting curbstomped, or Draymond Green earning a tech for his yapping, but there was actual basketball to explore.

For about 18 minutes or so, there was hope that the game would live up to the hype. The Thunder led by as many as 10 in the first quarter, keeping Golden State on their heels by attacking the rim with abandon. Oklahoma City stayed within hailing distance until the middle of the second quarter. That’s when Durant hit a pull up in the lane and a broken play three, and when Steph Curry hit him in stride with a behind-the-back pass for a transition three, the floodgates were open.

Factoring the Thunder’s hard fought win versus the Clippers less than 24 hours prior, and the hullabaloo surrounding the teams, if OKC simply ran out of gas, it’s understandable. But even “just” five games into the season, there are some very real takeaways to be made for both teams.

Westbrook giveth, Westbrook taketh away: Watching Westbrook work is a fascinating study; an examination of a leader who’s at war with his own inner desire to make the world burn. Even while the Thunder came out crisp and energized, the first crack in the business-like demeanor of Russell Westbrook showed itself a little more than three minutes into the game. He dribbled to his right off of a screen, with only the plodding Zaza Pachulia between him and the rim. Westbrook accelerated to his left, revving up for a highlight finish…and fumbled the ball as he elevated. The result was a flailing, wounded duck shot that went 20 feet in the air, kissing off the glass and dropping through the net by divine intervention. The impossible bucket gave Oklahoma City a 12 to 7 lead, but the unraveling had begun.

Four minutes later, Russ stepped confidently into an open straight away three-pointer that caught nothing but air, to the jeering delight of the Golden State crowd. Westbrook would end up with an unimpressive 20 points on 4 of 15 shooting, with six turnovers to go with his 10 assists. After the Herculean effort that went into Westbrook’s first four games of the year, it’s may not seem fair to ding him here. But heavy is the burden of the franchise player, especially for a superstar like Russ. The Thunder simply aren’t talented enough to have a shot against the upper echelon teams, hell, even just GOOD teams, if Westbrook isn’t locked in mentally.

Kevin Durant is The One Who Knocks: in all the sound and fury surrounding Kevin Durant’s address change, it’s not mentioned enough how incredible of a player he is. The full offensive repertoire was on display against his former team: stepbacks, post ups, iso drives, transition threes, all of it was working enroute to his 39 points on 24 shots. Curry had a nice night, as well (21 points, seven assists), but it’s becoming more and more apparent that, contrary to the narrative, Durant is the best player in the Bay. At the moment, Durant is leading the squad in points, steals, free throw attempts, player efficiency, usage percentage, VORP, and win shares per 48 minutes, he’s second in minutes, rebounds, and blocks, and third in assists. Most impressively, he’s not turning the ball over; his 8.5% turnover rate is well below his career average of 12.5 percent. Yeah, Curry may have the first unanimous MVP, and now he’s playing second banana to the second best player in the NBA.

The Oklahoma City “Others” have to get it together: When Westbrook and Steven Adams went to the bench with less than three minutes left in the first quarter, the Thunder were up 27-17 and sitting pretty. When Westbrook returned six minutes of game action later, OKC was looking at a six-point deficit. When Adams checked in a minute and a half later, the hole was nine.

No, you can’t blame Thunder role players for Kevin Durant going supernova, but coach Billy Donovan has to wring more scoring out of players not named Westbrook and Adams—In particular, Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo.

After a “Sixth Man Of The Year” 2015-2016 season (he averaged about 14 points and nine boards post all-star break), Kanter has been a disappointment thus far, and last night’s three minute, 0 point stinker was the low point.

Squint while watching Oladipo and you’ll see shades of Russ, but where Westbrook hits the lane in seek and destroy mode, searching out contact, Oladipo contorts and fades to avoid it. His 21 points last night looked good, but he seems confused about when to go full bore and when to defer. He takes some ill-advised pull ups, and he posted a team worst -26 net plus/minus.

On a team devoid of ball handling, Oladipo’s playmaking (he came into the season averaging four dimes a game for his career) and Kanter’s efficient 1-on-1 scoring can go a long way to alleviating pressure on Westbrook; the onus is on coach Donovan to get them into their grooves.

Klay Thompson is struggling; Ian Clark is shining: “I’m not sacrificing shit,” now has an ominous ring to it. Klay Thompson came into the game mired in a 3-for-28 three-point shooting slump; the silver lining is that he went 4-8 from deep against the Thunder, raising his season average to 19.4 percent. No one doubts that Thompson’s numbers will regress (progress!) to the mean eventually, and no one is particular concerned as long as backup guard Ian Clark continues to be a flame thrower. Clark dropped eight points in 19 minutes, and now has 30 points on 11-for-13 shooting in Golden State’s last two games.

As Westbrook said breezily after the game, it IS just one loss; in the 82 game scheme of things, the Warriors deconstruction of the Thunder is merely an entertaining blip. But a 26-point whupping has to be a wakeup call; now that 4-0 honeymoon is over for OKC, there’s tons of work left for Donovan and Co. to do.

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James Holas

Suffering Celtics fan. Lefty post dominator. Purveyor of the finest Steakums cuisine and candy corn.

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