|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
|Kevin Durant will be asking Russell Westbrook about that right knee all the way through the playoffs.|
Some nights I'm convinced Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will win their first NBA championship this June. Other nights, I'm Thunderstruck by their bizarre limitations.
For now I'm pretty sure only that (1) the only team that can beat the Oklahoma City Thunder is the Oklahoma City Thunder and (2) Durant and Westbrook are the strangest duo this side of Jekyll and Hyde. If only Dr. Jekyll could explain what keeps going on with Westbrook's knee. And only Dr. Freud might clarify the Nice/Not Nice conflict within Durant.
On second thought, maybe Freud could better explain the team's mysterious decision to possibly rest Westbrook, age 25, for one game each of the Thunder's six remaining back-to-backs, starting last Sunday night. He watched as Durant & Co. were blown out at home by Dallas.
Yes, Westbrook's knee underwent three surgical procedures between April and January -- after what at first seemed like a relatively minor cartilage tear. Yes, he keeps saying the knee is fine and keeps playing with his usual 100 mph rage to win -- and without a hint of a limp. Yet he's being rested as if he were 37-year-old Tim Duncan?
Don't ask Thunder coaches or management, who are CIA secretive and lead the league in media stonewalling. This naturally makes you wonder what they're hiding.
Could Durant win a title without Westbrook? I used to believe so. For years, starting with Durant's one college season at Texas, I raved on "First Take" about the most freakish scoring talent I'd ever seen -- 6 feet, 9 inches tall with arms stretching from Austin to Oklahoma City and the lightning release and long-distance touch of a Ray Allen. Lord have mercy on the NBA.
For years, I railed about how ego-crazed Westbrook, the worst-case shoot-first point guard, made so many knuckleheaded decisions in games and shot so many shots Durant should be taking. Last season, Westbrook took the NBA's second-most shots behind Kobe Bryant -- 102 more than Kevin Durant! As much as Durant liked (even loved) his little buddy Westbrook, the two had occasionally clashed over No. 0's shot selection.
Durant/Westbrook still seems an uneasy alliance, a Thunderstorm on the horizon.
But on Wednesday night, April 24, 2013, life changed for the Thunder. Game 2 of the Houston-OKC first-round playoff matchup, in OKC, was Patrick Beverley's first NBA start. Westbrook hadn't missed a game in two college and five NBA seasons. Beverley, battling to prove he wouldn't back down, went for the ball as Westbrook attempted to call timeout. The problem wasn't so much that Beverley violated an unwritten rule -- let the opposing point guard tuck the ball under his arm and make the "T" signal. Beverley knifed too low and made contact with Westbrook's planted knee.
Westbrook was gone for the rest of the playoffs. Without him, the Thunder survived the Rockets in six games and beat Memphis in Game 1. Then, it happened.
In four straight narrow losses to Memphis -- soon to be swept by San Antonio -- Durant turned into Du-can't. Not without Westbrook. In "clutch time" of those four losses -- the last five minutes and the game within six points -- Durant shot a combined 3-17, 0-3 from 3 and 2-5 on free throws, with one assist. Lord have mercy.
Durant didn't come up small just once or twice, but in four ... straight ... games.
This prompted "told you so" correspondence from a highly trusted, longtime NBA source of mine who had tried to warn me my view of Durant vs. Westbrook was upside down. My source is plugged in to several superstars. My source had told me Westbrook actually was Batman to Durant's Robin -- that the point guard built like (and who often played like) a strong safety was the one with the killer instinct, the assassin's clutch guts. Westbrook, my source had insisted, was mentally tougher than Durant and more feared by opponents late in games.
Still, on air I hung in with a Durant I often had called my favorite NBA player.
Westbrook showed up for training camp but -- what? -- immediately needed a second surgical procedure. He returned ahead of schedule for the season's third game, but, after recording a triple-double and finishing the game against the Knicks on Christmas Day, he needed a -- seriously? -- third procedure and missed the next 27 games.
And "my man" KD hit bottom at home on New Year's Eve, scoring a grand total of one point in the fourth quarter as Portland outscored the Thunder 27-16 and won by four. Two nights later, again at home, the Thunder allowed a late 14-0 run by 10-21 Brooklyn and lost by two. Durant: four in the fourth.
That's when -- on air -- I gave up and said, OK, Durant is no longer The Man in OKC. Westbrook is. The Thunder, I said, would ultimately go as far as Westbrook carries them when he returns.
I have no idea whether Durant was watching. I know he has twice taken public issue with me, for criticizing Westbrook and for criticizing him for getting too close to LeBron James in offseason workouts.
But Durant soon went on an MVP tear. The Thunder won 15 of 17 -- including one at Miami -- before Westbrook returned for the home rematch with the Heat.
What sometimes detonated Durant was getting a technical foul. Again down to Portland at home, this time by three with 3:45 left, Durant blew up after two straight questionable calls and got a tech. Then he blew up on the Blazers with 10 more points as OKC won by eight.
Were we seeing some new fire in Durant's belly?
Last season, Nike promoted Durant's signature shoe with a "KD is not nice" campaign. This suggested Durant had developed a complex after losing in the Finals to LeBron and being viewed as too buddy-buddy with his good buddy. "Not Nice" KD drew 12 techs last season, equaling his total for his first five seasons. He always seemed to be mad at somebody.
This season, Durant already has 13 techs. Yet he recently announced a new "Strong and Kind" Movement. Huh?
Durant told ESPN's Chris Broussard: "If you see me play, I'm barking at guys, I'm talking trash, I'm being physical. But at the same time, if you fall on the ground, I'll help you up, and after the game we'll talk as friends. So it's not a weakness to be a kind person. Everybody always says nice guys finish last, but I'm trying to change that."
|Kevin Durant has top physical skills but lacks a true killer instinct.|
Nice ... or Not Nice?
It appears Durant hasn't completely reconciled the Bible verse tattooed on his back with the mounting pressure to be more "like Mike" -- like the Michael Jordan known for being a cold-blooded killer on a basketball court.
Durant often unsuccessfully fights the natural nice in him. He sometimes comes off as a surly jerk in on-court postgame TV interviews because he's trying to seem dead-seriously angry about winning a championship.
Translation: He's trying to come off more like Westbrook naturally does. Westbrook can genuinely be a surly jerk. He doesn't have to try to be a late-game cold-blooded killer. He just is.
Durant still appears to wrestle with exactly why God blessed him with such rare talent. Westbrook doesn't seem to think about much but using his freakish speed, strength and spring to play basketball as hard as he can. Westbrook often seems happier than Durant.
Now, Durant's first championship hinges on Westbrook's not-nice knee. Once so durable, now so defective?
Three times I've had medial meniscus tears scoped and bounced back quickly. These aren't big deals. No, I don't play NBA basketball. But last July, I had what my surgeon called a "significant tear" on a knee whose cushioning cartilage had been clipped once. Three weeks later, I had built back up to running eight miles. I still play a lot of basketball without issue.
Something went very wrong with Westbrook's knee. He's obviously sucking it up and rampaging through pain game after game. By resting him for the second game of these five back-to-backs, the team obviously is trying to save him for a deep playoff run.
Late in playoff games, "Kind" Kevin has no chance without him.