SAN ANTONIO — Russell Westbrook locked eyes with Kevin Durant and pointed to his temples.
Moments earlier, Durant lost Danny Green, his defensive assignment, and the Spur swingman hit another in a growing string of threes. But Durant responded to his tag-team partner with a wave off.
More temple pointing and hand waving followed.
Then, as the pair neared a timeout huddle, the yelling started.
It was an ugly moment in an even uglier game. It’s easy to understand frustration — the Thunder got its doors blown off, 112-77, and finds itself in a 2-0 hole in the Western Conference Finals — but the boys in blue seem to be fraying a bit mentally.
It’s one thing to lose.
It’s another thing to lose your cool.
“I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff, and he got on me right back,” Westbrook said of the exchange. “That’s what teammates do. That’s what leaders do. We get on each other, we come back, and we talk about it, and then we come out like nothing ever happened.”
As Westbrook talked in the postgame press conference, he sat next to Durant. The Thunder stars looked as chummy as ever, so I’m not here to suggest some sort of rift between these two. That storyline is old and tired, frankly.
But the truth is, Durant and Westbrook are going to have to be mentally stronger than they’ve ever been before if the Thunder is going to turn around this series.
“You know, it’s easy for you to go hide and run and be negative and clash,” Durant said, “but it’s hard for you to stay positive at a time like this when we lost by a lot two games in a row. It’s hard for you to stay together, but we have a group full of guys that’s not frontrunners, and we’ll figure it out.
“That’s all we’ve got to do, come in and figure it out.”
The Thunder has been in this very spot before, of course, down 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals to the Spurs. The Thunder rallied two years ago, winning four straight and going to the NBA Finals.
But this 2-0 hole feels different.
These opening losses were both blowouts, and there aren’t one or two problems to fix. There are dozens. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it seems that as soon as the Thunder fixes one issue, another one pops up. Stop the Spurs from forming a conga line to the basket, and suddenly, they start lighting you up from outside. Try to attack the basket when outside shots aren’t falling, and suddenly, they start stepping in passing lanes and causing turnovers.
No wonder composure from guys in Thunder uniforms is faltering.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game that the dust-up between Durant and Westbrook was born out of defensive mistakes late in the second quarter. The Thunder had watched a five-point deficit balloon to 11 after Green hit a couple threes.
Brooks contended that he likes the type of frustration he saw from Durant and Westbrook.
“It’s on the defensive end,” Brooks said. “We gave up some threes, and we wanted to make sure that did not happen going forward. I like that. I like that they were frustrated that we gave up those threes.”
Fair enough. You have to have passion. You have to care. No one is questioning whether Durant cares or whether Westbrook has passion.
But every player on this team looks to Durant and Westbrook. How are they acting? How are they reacting? And when they came to the huddle yelling at each other, their teammates had to wonder if maybe it was time to panic.
The Thunder clearly didn’t respond well after that point. They finished the half with a couple more turnovers and no more points while giving up another Spur three.
And the collapse continued in the second half with another 13-4 spurt by the Spurs.
Durant and Westbrook combined to score the Thunder’s next eight points after their confrontation — but it took them nearly eight minutes to score those eight points. Think about how many times we’ve seen those guys score that many points in a minute or so.
“You’re not going to stop them,” Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. “We know they’re going to keep being aggressive, and they’re going to score some points. We just try to make sure they take a lot of shots to score those points.”
Wednesday night, Durant and Westbrook needed 40 shots to score 30 points.
So, yes, they have to be better on the court, but as much as anything, they have to be on top of their games in the locker room, on the practice court and in the film room these next few days. For this team to turn this series, it has to stick together and stay strong, and that emanates from their leaders.
Losing your cool won’t cut it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.