There’s a poignant moment in Jonathan Abrams’s oral history about the 2002 Kings, right after the section covering their gut-wrenching Game 7 defeat, when a Sacramento employee named Devin Blankenship remembers his coworkers consoling one another. They were saying all the right things about losing to the Lakers. It’s just the beginning. This is the start of something bigger. You can’t win the big one until you lose a few tough ones. Their boss overheard and went the other way, wondering aloud, What if that was it? What if that was our shot?
That moment resonated for a simple reason: That WAS their shot. And that WAS it.
The boss wasn’t describing a “shot” as much as a window. If you’re blessed with Michael and Scottie in their mid-twenties, that window should last for a decade, as long as nothing funky happens. If you’re catching C-Webb right as he’s hitting his prime, and you’re surrounding him with quality veterans who connect with his unselfish playing style, maybe that’s four or five guaranteed years. If you’re teaming up Pierce and Garnett and Allen at the tail end of their primes, you’re publicly hoping for five healthy years and secretly praying for three. Every A-list contender has a built-in window, and almost always, you know what it is. When that window slams shut well before you’re ready, you never really get over it.
Will we remember Oklahoma City that way someday? We know that it’s Kevin Durant’s seventh season and his sixth with Russell Westbrook. We know they’re playing for a small-market franchise that actively avoids the luxury tax. We know Durant’s contract expires in 2016, and Westbrook’s deal expires one year later. We know Westbrook endured three knee surgeries in the past 12 months. We know that bad luck comes in all shapes and sizes. We know the West is loaded, and we know LeBron is never going away. We know they easily could have blown the Memphis series, and we know the bumbling officials saved their season Tuesday night.
We overrate youth and potential with sports, movies, TV, music, art and even politics — it’s more enjoyable to imagine what something might become. We envision the Thunder overpowering LeBron’s Heat in Durant’s MVP season because that’s the age-old NBA formula, right? Young guys work their way up, learn a few lessons, suffer some pain, finally overpower the incumbents, battle all comers for the next few years … and then the cycle repeats.
That’s your best-case scenario for the Thunder. The other scenarios aren’t as pretty. Just like we overrate youth and potential, we underrate injury luck, unfortunate breaks, untimely trades, the Disease of More, greed and egos, poor coaching and plain old bad luck. The Thunder could definitely topple San Antonio and Miami next month, but they’re just as likely to not win a single title with Durant and Westbrook. The S.I. Vault, Basketball-Reference.com, dozens of NBA books and thousands of YouTube clips deliver the same message: Things are just as likely to go wrong as right. On paper, OKC should evolve into this generation’s version of the 1990s Bulls: Durant as Jordan, Westbrook as Pippen, and Ibaka as Grant/Rodman. It’s a star-driven league with the least amount of playoff variance in any professional sport. When you have a top-two player, a top-eight player and a top-25 player on one team, you should definitely win a ring.
Unfortunately, you never know when “The Rains of Castamere” will start playing. A similar window opened after Game 7 of the 1962 Finals, when the Lakers came within Frank Selvy’s errant 15-footer of upending Bill Russell’s budding dynasty. That Lakers team employed 27-year-old Elgin Baylor and 23-year-old Jerry West, two of the league’s best five players. (Sound familiar?) Nobody was thinking after the ’62 Finals, What if that was it? But they spent the next two years trying to find a good enough center, then Baylor wrecked his knee during the ’65 playoffs. So much for Elgin and Jerry owning the NBA. They never won a championship together.
Fifteen years later, Bill Walton’s precocious Blazers toppled Philly for the 1977 title, then took a 40-8 record into the ensuing All-Star break looking like Russell’s Celtics reincarnated. On February 13, 1978, Sports Illustrated ran a gushing feature about Portland’s night-to-night brilliance that included Rick Barry admitting, “The Blazers may be the most ideal team ever put together,” and Don Nelson declaring, “They are a team for all time.” Walton’s feet started aching two weeks later. They never won another playoff series with him, an unbelievable turn of events that inspired the greatest sports book ever written (David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game).
Every generation has its version of the ’62 Lakers and ’77 Blazers, contenders that fooled us into thinking their window would last longer than it did. The ’86 Rockets, ’88 Mavericks and ’96 Sonics were ravaged by drugs, injuries and/or money. An alpha-dog battle submarined the Shaq-Penny dynasty in Orlando and, later, a possible seven-title run for Shaq and Kobe in Los Angeles. Derrick Rose, C-Webb and James Silas suffered untimely knee injuries that ruined legitimate title windows for the Bulls, Kings and Spurs. Steve Nash’s critically acclaimed Suns teams kept falling short in increasingly unfair ways.
That window can be a cruel beast. For whatever reason, Dirk and Nash won three MVPs after breaking up, but they never made the Finals together. Yao and T-Mac never won a playoff series together. An inconceivable Wilt-Elgin-West trio lost two straight Game 7s in the Finals. LeBron spent seven seasons in Cleveland without ever winning a Finals game. Ewing and Barkley never won titles. Four unstoppable-at-the-time duos — Hakeem and Ralph, Penny and Shaq, GP and Kemp, and Malone and Stockton — somehow finished with a combined 8-20 Finals record. Can we really say, with any certainty whatsoever, that “Those guys are gonna be chasing championships and competing for years to come”?
You’re more likely to bemoan the opportunities that slipped away. My father and I talk about the Celtics blowing the 2010 title waaaaaaaay more than we talk about the Celtics winning in 2008. How does that make sense? We had a three-year window with those guys, minimum, and the over/under for titles was 1½. We went under. And we went under because Perkins got injured in Game 6, because we didn’t put them away in the third quarter, because Nate Robinson should have played more, because Rasheed was too winded to play 35 minutes in Game 7, because we didn’t get a freaking call in the entire fourth quarter, because Gasol threw Rondo out of bounds on the biggest rebound of the game … I mean, there’s a 100 percent chance that I’m never getting over that game. And neither will my father.
We thought we were in the minority … until Doc Rivers told me about eating dinner with former assistant Tom Thibodeau last summer. For whatever reason, they spent an hour talking about Game 7. They rehashed everything — every decision, every play, every bad break, everything. They nearly broke Kobe and stole the title that year. Came within a couple of minutes, actually. They couldn’t get over it. They just sat there eating and drinking and making each other miserable. Only later did Doc realize that the 2008 Finals never came up.
So what do you say when those opportunities haven’t slipped away yet, but you’re probably more likely to see that happen than anything else? Am I a sour pessimist for bringing this up? When should you start feeling real anxiety over something as simple as “We might have Durant and Westbrook for their entire careers … how could we NOT win a couple of titles?”
Watching the Thunder’s roller coaster ride these first two rounds — as they vacillate between breathtaking basketball and unconscionably stilted basketball, sometimes in the same game — has frustrated even non-OKC fans. To fend off the scrappy Grizzlies, they needed a career night from Reggie Jackson in Game 4, a poorly timed “Mr. Unreliable” headline after Game 5, a timely Mike Conley injury and a controversial Z-Bo punch. They knocked off Memphis in Game 7, then the Clippers ran them out of their own building in Game 1. At that point, the Thunder were 2-3 at home in the playoffs. What the hell was happening?
When Durant’s beautiful MVP speech seemingly inspired their best basketball in Game 2 and Game 3, as well as the first three quarters of Game 4, that seemed like something of a “Voilà!” moment. That speech was the catalyst! Move over, William Wallace, there’s a new sheriff in town! The Thunder were finally tapping into their considerable athletic gifts, much like the Bulls figuring it out in the 1991 playoffs and shifting into All-Madden mode. Westbrook was playing as unselfishly as ever. Durant was locked in. This was happening.
And then the last quarter happened. If you want to watch OKC at its worst, just watch the last nine minutes of Game 4: one-on-one offense, overdribbling, wrong lineups, bad strategy, no composure, no crunch-time savviness and 27-foot heaves. This was like watching Rick Adelman’s star-crossed Portland teams all over again. That unsettled malaise carried over to the first 47 minutes of Game 5, with their defense floundering and Durant inexplicably turning into a right-handed Josh Smith. Everything flipped again in the last 50 seconds, thanks to Durant’s monster 3, two utterly ridiculous calls, three egregious Chris Paul mistakes, and Westbrook draining three of the ballsiest free throws I can remember.
I left that game thinking two things …
How can anyone believe in this Thunder team?
And how can anyone NOT believe in this Thunder team?
It’s a great question. And it’s a great question.
We always hear about the “journey” with NBA champions. Wilt couldn’t get past Russell until 1967, when he regrouped and unleashed the best Russell imitation that’s ever been done. West couldn’t shed that “Greatest Player Who Never Won” label until the magical ’72 season. Julius never climbed the mountain in Philly until a man named Moses showed up. Jordan didn’t become an NBA champ until Scottie matured into a top-five player. Shaq and Kobe kept belly flopping until their unforgettable Game 7 comeback against the 2000 Blazers. The Heat kept caving in 2011 and 2012 until Game 6 against Boston, when LeBron finally said, “Out of my way, this is MY team.”
The Thunder’s “journey” scenario looks so obvious. They were the Up-and-Coming Young Guys in 2010 and 2011, then barged into the 2012 Finals before losing to Miami. With their best four players younger than 25, they seemed like the safest bet for a multi-title dynasty since the 1995 Magic. (Zero titles for them, by the way.) Just four months later, they stunned the basketball world by dealing James Harden to Houston for financial reasons; even worse, they didn’t obtain a guaranteed blue-chipper in return. Cue up the “journey” music. Actually, let’s just cue up Journey.
If Durant and Westbrook never win Oklahoma City a title, the Harden trade will forever be the first reason mentioned. We don’t need to rehash the gory details (I already did it here and here), other than to point out that — less than two years later — it’s clear that the Thunder never anticipated this particular post-lockout world. These days, the salary cap and luxury tax thresholds keep climbing, and the value of the league’s next media rights deal (still unsigned) is soaring to the point that afterthought franchises like the lowly Bucks are suddenly worth $550 million. The Thunder EASILY could have afforded Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook and Harden these next two seasons. Right now, they have Steven Adams and the 21st pick of next month’s draft to show for a first-team All-NBA guard. Can you ever recover from that?
After Westbrook’s untimely knee injury ruined their 2013 playoff chances, you could hear the Thunder’s window creaking for the first time. A perturbed Durant raised his offensive game to ungodly levels, realizing his destiny as some sort of unthinkable cross between Dirk Nowitzki, George Gervin, Tracy McGrady and Plastic Man (and I don’t mean Stacey Augmon) … you know, with just a hint of Magic Johnson’s passing sprinkled in because this wasn’t ridiculous enough. In a 16-week stretch from Christmas Day through Game 82 in April, KD threw up a 34-7-6 every night with 51-38-87% shooting splits. Even better, he started carrying himself like a Liam Neeson character — unfriendly, cold-blooded, blessed with a specific set of skills unique to him and only him.
As for Westbrook, it took 11 months and three surgeries before he finally looked like Force Of Nature Westbrook again. He’ll always be polarizing — the point guard who shoots 20-plus times a game, the creator who creates mostly for himself, the leader who rarely makes teammates better, the ultimate 90/10 guy, the running mate who refuses to accept that he’s a running mate. So what if OKC feeds off his fearlessness and unwavering intensity? So what if he’s an absolutely devastating athlete, one of maybe nine guys in basketball history blessed with the gifts to casually pick Mike Conley’s pocket DOWN TWO WITH SIX SECONDS TO GO IN A MUST-WIN PLAYOFF GAME? So what if he’s never had an above-average coach, dating back to college (and by the way, neither has Durant)? So what if the worst thing you could ever say about him is, “He’s wildly overcompetitive”?
I was fortunate enough to watch Jordan and Pippen in person during their collective apex, when they were ripping through overmatched teams like varsity studs whupping on the JV. Only two other pairings — LeBron and Wade during those first two years, and Westbrook and Durant right now — made me feel that way, as if their inherent athletic advantages were almost unfair. Is it frustrating that Westbrook’s shot selection occasionally lowers Durant’s offensive ceiling, that Westbrook keeps forgetting that he should be Pippen in their relationship? Of course. But if you’ve ever caught them in person, during one of those electric games when they’re unleashing athletic holy hell with Ibaka, it’s absolutely unforgettable.
That doesn’t stop the general public from picking them apart. Following the NBA has become a 24/7 thing thanks to social media, YouTube, Instagram and everything else; we never leave these guys alone. They’re constantly accessible. They’re constantly aware of what we’re saying. Shaq and Kobe never would have survived life together in 2014 — they would have imploded well before that third title. Scottie Pippen never would have survived the Migraine Game in 1990 or the Self-Benching in 1994; he would have been skewered and reskewered and rereskewered, and eventually they would have traded him before the second three-peat finished.
That’s why there wasn’t a snippier, angrier, more hostile contender than OKC during the regular season. They hated hearing about Harden, hated falling short, hated the Westbrook microscope, hated the constant scrutiny. Everything about them oozed the words “Leave us alone, let us play basketball.” When Jackson saved Game 4 in Memphis, Durant and Westbrook bear-hugged him for unusually long times. You could feel the relief pouring out of them. This wasn’t just about escaping a threatening playoff moment. It was bigger than that.
And I didn’t totally understand until Durant’s incredible MVP speech, which was simply one of the greatest off-the-floor moments in NBA history.
For 26 solid minutes, he talked candidly about his life, his family, his teammates, his coaches and even his front office. He remembered every obstacle he overcame, every moment that mattered, everyone who helped him along the way. He didn’t read from anything. It was unclear how much he even prepared. He broke down a number of times, and by the end, his face was covered in tears — some dried, some fresh, all of them real. Twenty-six minutes. Twenty-six! He came off so genuinely, so thoughtfully, so effortlessly … I mean, can you even compare it to anything? Could even the great Bill Russell have pulled this off?
After the speech, everyone focused on Durant’s wonderful words about his mother, and rightfully so — that section alone could have been a pantheon sports speech. But I couldn’t get over how graciously Durant treated his teammates. They were sitting behind him like little kids, fighting to keep their composure as he mentioned them one at a time. He explained how each player resonated with him, sprinkling each story with a personal touch and smartly saving his buddy Westbrook for last.
“I know you guys think I forgot Russ,” he joked as everyone laughed nervously. “I could speak all night about Russell. An emotional guy who would run through a wall for me. I don’t take it for granted. There’s days where I just want to tackle you and tell you to snap out of it sometimes. I know there’s days you want to do the same thing with me. I love you, man. I love you.”
Stop there. No way Jordan would ever describe Pippen that way. No way LeBron describes Wade that way. No way Kobe describes ANYONE that way. Durant’s best quality was always Duncan’s best quality — he doesn’t care how his team wins, just that they do. He’s one of the best teammates ever. And just with those eight sentences, he squashed even the most remote possibility of an Avon-Stringer ending. But Durant wasn’t close to being done yet.
“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player,” Durant said, his voice quavering. “And I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all. Just stay the person you are, man. Everyone loves you here. I love you. I thank you so much, man. You made me better. Your work ethic — I always wanted to compete with you, I always wanted to pull up in the parking lot of the arena or the practice facility, and if you beat me there I was always upset. I always wanted to outwork you. And you set the bar, you set the tone. Thank you so much, man. Thank you. You got a big piece of this [trophy]. You’re an MVP-caliber player and it’s a blessing to play with you.”
So much for trading Russell Westbrook. I have been following sports for something like 40 years — I can’t remember a teammate sticking up for another teammate better than that. Not ever. The point was made. Russ is my brother. We are in this together for better and worse. And just like that, we went from thinking They’re trading Westbrook if they don’t win the title soon to They’re never, ever, EVER trading Westbrook. Kevin Durant flipped the script on the “journey,” just like that, in less than 50 seconds. Either KD sticks around like Duncan stuck around in San Antonio, or he’s a greater actor than Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m betting on the former. You can’t fake that stuff. You just can’t.
And you know what else? Even if they drive us bonkers sometimes, Durant and Westbrook might be imperfectly perfect for each other. You saw why last night, when a typically fearless Westbrook saved OKC from Durant’s abominable shooting night — his own version of LeBron’s perplexing Game 5 against Boston in 2010, a stink bomb that could have haunted him forever. Would LeBron have ever dumped Cleveland if he had Westbrook there? And why would Durant leave OKC when he has Westbrook there?
You could always find them a better coach, someone who would do things like “run an actual offense with plays and stuff” and “figure out on the fly how to get Durant the ball when he’s being defended by someone who’s 10 inches shorter.” And eventually, you could find them a real point guard, someone who allows both guys to play off the ball. But you could never replace what they have. It’s the rarest of basketball partnerships — two alpha dogs coexisting and complementing each other (for the most part, anyway), with their friendship transcending every conceivable landmine. Why would you break THAT up? Keep that window pried open, baby. For as long as you can.
So was last night’s remarkable comeback something of a watershed moment for the Durant-Westbrook “journey”? Can they extend their window for 10 years, or 12, or maybe even 15? Or will some Thunder employee be wondering What if that was it? What if that was our shot? next month and end up looking like Nostradamus? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. That’s the thing about the NBA: You NEVER know. Just remember to keep enjoying the ride. Even when it’s a roller coaster.