OKLAHOMA CITY -- It takes a special thing to overshadow a teammate who had 24 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists. But that's what Kevin Durant did against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, somehow trumping Russell Westbrook's supersized triple-double.
It started with a block from Serge Ibaka with 10 seconds left in a tie game. The ball fell to Dion Waiters, and he looked to the bench to call timeout. Head coach Billy Donovan said play on. Waiters tossed it to Durant, who walked it up the court and then put a light testing move on Tobias Harris before unleashing his patented albatross cross, in which the ball spans all seven and a half feet of his wingspan. Harris rocked back and Durant rose up. Game over, 117-114.
"I saw they were off-balance a little bit and [Harris] didn't know what was going to happen, if a screen was coming; I saw he kept turning his head," Durant said. "Left-to-right cross, been working on that since I was 6 years old. Just felt confident in that shot when I let it go."
Overlooking the fact they had to go to the wire at home against the lowly Magic -- whom they also went to double-overtime with in October before winning 139-136 -- it was the kind of performance that can leave you mesmerized by the electrifying talent the Oklahoma City Thunder possess. Westbrook's trademark uncompromising relentlessness, Durant's beautiful jump-shot poetry, Ibaka's towering rim protection.
Let's start with Westbrook, who is registering triple-doubles so often and of such magnitude that ESPN Stats & Information might need it's own Russell Westbrook division. This was his eighth of the season, his third in a row and the 27th of his career. This stretch is also the third time this season he has had back-to-back triple-doubles, something no one has done since Magic Johnson in 1990-91. The most recent player to put up the kind of numbers Westbrook did on Wednesday? Larry Bird, who in 1982 had a 28-19-15 game, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
It wasn't just the raw numbers, though. It was the dogged determination he did it with. Westbrook just made plays -- such as ripping a critical defensive rebound out of Elfrid Payton's hands with 40 seconds left -- to keep the Thunder in it. He was the one who tied the game with a bulldozing layup with 29 seconds left before Durant splashed his winner.
"He's always engaged in the game," Donovan said about Westbrook. "He's got an incredible fire to him, an incredible competitiveness to him and he's able to play that hard. And he also did a great job composure-wise of running our team. He's really a unique, unique player. I love being around him every day. Just his will to just chase it physically every single possession is just remarkable."
Then there was Durant, who jammed a finger on his left hand in the first quarter and had it bother him the rest of the game. He got it taped, then pulled the tape off, and checked it periodically throughout, constantly wincing. He was frustrated in the third quarter with a flurry of calls that didn't go his way, and started to slump a bit. But this is Kevin Durant, and all it takes is one shot to fall for him to snap back into it.
He hit his first 3-pointer with six minutes left in the fourth, then another with three minutes to go and then the final one with 0.5 seconds left. In total, a quiet-ish 37 points, plus five rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
"That's a part of life, that's a part of basketball, man," Durant said of the in-game setbacks. "There's going to be bumps in the road, and how you respond is what makes you tough. I just tried to respond tonight."
Finally, Ibaka, who has been the center of some criticism from fans recently for his low numbers and inconsistency shooting. But his impact often shows up when you need it most, like when he switched onto Victor Oladipo (who had 37 points himself) to hang with the speedy guard and swat his shot off the backboard. Ibaka had just nine points and seven rebounds, but flashed the elite ability to protect the paint and showed why his defense is what can set the Thunder apart.
"That's what he does," Durant said. "That's what he did tonight. He was huge. He had six blocks tonight. He wanted to make more shots, but defensively when he locks in like that we're a tough team to beat."
The Thunder have quietly steamrolled their way to a 38-13 record, which in most any other season would have them sitting atop the Western Conference. But this isn't any other season, and the Thunder with that record are eight games back of the Golden State Warriors. Whom they travel to play at Oracle Arena on Saturday. And on the same night Westbrook posted his absurd triple-double line, Stephen Curry went for 51 against the Wizards, hitting 11 3-pointers. Two intergalactic superstar point guards, with extremely contrasting styles.
Is Westbrook looking forward to Saturday?
"What's going on Saturday?" he said.
You play the Warriors.
"Oh, s---," he said, laughing. He claimed to honestly not be thinking of that.
"Yeah, yeah, I mean it'll be a good game," he said, recovering. "Like I've said before, I really just take it one day at a time, enjoy this win tonight, go home, enjoy my family and get ready for Saturday when that comes."
It's coming in two days, and it'll be the Thunder's opportunity to truly measure themselves. Their defensive inconsistencies will be tested to their limits, their flaws placed under the microscope. Despite an impressive record, they've slipped a bit out of the conversation, something Durant said he used to worry about, but they have their shot to barge right back into it. Because with these three players, they're always going to have a chance.