Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Evoke Their Early Promise, Just Not Together

Published: April 26, 2023

PHOENIX — Russell Westbrook sprinted to steal the ball from Kevin Durant, sending Durant flying to the ground on his bottom.

Durant winced in ache for a number of moments earlier than heading to the free-throw line at Phoenix’s Footprint Center as 1000’s of Suns followers in orange T-shirts held their breath. Westbrook shortly walked away from the scene, seemingly unconcerned, and waited for Durant to start taking pictures.

The sequence performed out like two ardent foes battling in an elimination sport — which, technically, it was. Westbrook’s Clippers have been on their final likelihood to remain alive within the first-round playoff sequence. But it was additionally a matchup between two males who had spent practically a decade collectively as teammates, making the N.B.A. finals in 2012 with Oklahoma City as fledgling 23-year-olds tasked with carrying a brand new franchise in a small metropolis.

“You know Russ is a fierce competitor, so when he sees K, it’s always about trying to play super hard,” stated Suns guard Cameron Payne, who performed with Westbrook and Durant on the Thunder.

Payne added: “Maybe in the regular season, he’ll go help him up, but you never know with Russ. Like playing with him in OKC, he was big on how it’s 15 guys on a team, and I’m with my 15 guys, so that’s just that competing stuff I was talking about.”

It was one other puzzling second in a jagged relationship.

Durant’s Suns gained the decisive Game 5 on Tuesday, 136-130, holding off a late comeback try from the Clippers and advancing to the second spherical. Phoenix will play the top-seeded Denver Nuggets within the Western Conference semifinals starting Saturday. Suns guard Devin Booker led all scorers with 47 factors; Durant added 31, and Westbrook had 14.

Eleven years in the past, Durant and Westbrook led Oklahoma City previous playoff groups fronted by the longer term Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and headed into an N.B.A. finals matchup with LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The Heat beat the Thunder simply in 5 video games, with Miami’s expertise and star energy proving an excessive amount of for the upstart Thunder.

As swift because the loss was, it appeared to point that Durant and Westbrook could be again and would win championships collectively; they appeared too proficient to not.

But they didn’t. Durant and Westbrook picked up particular person accolades: Each has gained a Most Valuable Player Award and lots of All-N.B.A. honors, however they by no means received to a different finals collectively. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016 after the Thunder blew a three-games-to-one lead within the Western Conference finals in opposition to Golden State.

In their second matchup in opposition to one another after Durant’s departure, Westbrook yelled at his teammates and instructed them to not discuss to Durant. They averted questions on one another. Even former teammates like James Harden, who performed with them in Oklahoma City, stated they have been “grown men” who needed to “figure it out themselves.”

Since then, every has been on a number of groups. Durant gained two championships with the Warriors after which headed to the Nets and now Phoenix. Westbrook has performed on a number of groups that have been purported to have been title contenders — Rockets, Lakers, Clippers — however none has panned out. As Durant thrived, Westbrook started to be considered as previous his prime, now not the participant who may will groups to wins and common triple-doubles, and he has grow to be the butt of jokes from followers when he struggles.

But on this playoff sequence in opposition to the Suns, Westbrook proved he may nonetheless be a distinction maker. Westbrook signed with the Clippers in February as a free agent after the Lakers had traded him to Utah, the place he was launched to, at finest, be the third choice for the Clippers behind the celebrities Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. But accidents to George and Leonard made Westbrook the primary scoring choice in opposition to the Suns, and he usually served because the crew’s finest rebounder and defender.

He completed the sequence averaging 23.6 factors, 7.6 rebounds and seven.4 assists per sport, trying like a model of his outdated self, and he had the game-sealing block on Booker within the Clippers’ Game 1 win.

“When he’s retired, people are going to really tell the truth about how they feel about his game,” Durant stated after Game 4, when Westbrook had 37 factors. “Right now, the fun thing to do is to make a joke out of Russ. But the way he’s been playing since he got with the Clippers is showing everybody who he really is.”

After Game 5, Westbrook mirrored on Durant’s feedback, with an introspective reply that sounded as if it may additionally function a pitch to groups to signal him this summer time.

“I just think that I am a player that makes mistakes like anybody else,” Westbrook stated. “I miss shots like anybody else. I turn the ball over like anybody else. But I also do a lot of things that a lot of people can’t do, and I’ve done a lot of things people haven’t done in this league.”

For Durant, this sequence, and these playoffs, have a special that means in some basketball followers’ eyes: proving that he can win a title with out Golden State’s Stephen Curry and as a crew’s finest participant. Durant, nevertheless, has stated that he doesn’t really feel that strain as a result of he has “nothing to prove.”

The Boston Celtics embarrassed Durant and the Nets final season within the first spherical of the playoffs, sweeping them with out a lot bother. Boston’s star ahead Jayson Tatum outplayed Durant, scoring rather a lot whereas additionally defending Durant.

And then, within the N.B.A. finals, Curry and the Warriors beat that Boston crew that had simply conquered Durant’s earlier within the postseason.

In Tuesday’s win, Durant disappeared for a lot of the fourth quarter, going scoreless for practically 10 minutes as Booker dominated the ball and the Clippers inched nearer. As the postseason continues, how the Suns win — with Durant main the best way or with Booker, or another person — will add fodder to the dialogue about Durant’s place as top-of-the-line gamers ever.

That was clear on Tuesday, as Suns Coach Monty Williams made certain to acknowledge in his postgame news convention. But Williams additionally stated that he was at fault for Durant’s lack of touches on the finish of the sport.

“I’ve got to figure out ways to get him in space so he can catch the ball freely and be able to go,” Williams stated.

As the sport ended, Westbrook had many lengthy embraces with Suns gamers and coaches on the courtroom, however he by no means made it to Durant. Instead, Westbrook left the ground alone, with one hand raised to followers as he exited, whereas Durant did a tv interview on the opposite finish of the courtroom.

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