The Thunder’s first five playoff games served as a rallying cry for all those in the “Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will never properly co-exist” camp.
But OKC’s last five playoff games may have served as the definitive nail in the coffin of that increasingly unpopular argument.
The Thunder labored to the brink of elimination against Memphis, stumbling to a 3-2 series deficit because of Westbrook’s erratic shot selection and Durant’s inability to find any offensive rhythm.
But ever since that series tilted from Game 5 to 6 — a turning point that could come to define this playoff run — Westbrook flipped a switch and Durant recaptured his MVP magic. And now, five games and four crucial wins later, this dynamic duo is playing maybe its best two-man basketball since linking up six years ago.
The numbers have been truly historic, particularly in the past two games.
On Wednesday against the Clippers, Westbrook had 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his third triple-double of the postseason. Durant added 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in NBA history — counting both the regular season and playoffs — that teammates had both gone for 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and nine-plus assists in the same game.
“They finally have a nice little chemistry, hitting a nice little stride,” Kendrick Perkins said.
On Friday, they nearly matched those monumental numbers. Westbrook finished with 23, 13 and eight, while Durant added 36, eight and six. In the past two games, Durant and Westbrook have combined to score or assist on 179 of the Thunder’s 230 points.
“I think it’s all calculated,” Caron Butler said. “They know when to be overly aggressive, when to not, when to get guys involved, when to set the stage.”
And that balance has been particularly evident within Westbrook, whose personal playoff turnaround coincides directly with the Thunder’s.
Since receiving heavy criticism for his early postseason play, Westbrook has scaled back his shot selection. He’s still attacking the rim in furious spurts, but seems to be more conscious of playmaking for others. He’s still taking his jumper, but only when open.
*Westbrook’s first five playoff games: 44-of-128 from the field and 7-of-38 from 3-point range.
*Westbrook’s past five playoff games: 48-of-87 from the field and 9-of-16 from 3-point range.
“I think it came with having Russ back on a consistent basis,” Butler said of Westbrook and the team regaining their rhythm, noting that the All-Star point guard is no longer resting back-to-backs or facing a minutes limitation.
And Westbrook’s revitalization seems to have played a role in Durant’s.
In Game 7 of the Memphis series, Westbrook’s table-setting got the previously struggling Durant back into rhythm. Up to that point, Durant was shooting 41 percent in the playoffs. But in that game, he went 12-of-18 from the field, with Westbrook assisting on eight of those field goals.
Ever since, the MVP has been rolling. And so have the Thunder, capping a dominant run with two backbreaking daggers by the superstars on Friday night.
With two minutes left, Westbrook stepped into a wide-open 3-pointer, turning a one-point Thunder lead to four by taking advantage of the Clippers’ hesitancy to guard him on the perimeter. Then moments later, Westbrook dropped it down to Durant in the post, who turned, fired and nailed a fadeaway dagger.
It was his 36th point. It was Westbrook’s 13th assist. And it was the final statement during this recent run of brilliance.
“That’s what the best duo in basketball does,” Butler said. “They pull through for you when you need it.”