Was there tension? Sure, at times.
Is there a feud? Far from it.
That's how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as those closest to the Oklahoma City Thunder's All-Star duo, described their relationship, past and present, at the team's media day Tuesday.
“People got to understand that guys are not going to agree on every single thing that goes on in a long season,” said Durant. “Guys are going to have heated arguments. But at the same time, we understand each other. We just want the best for each other. I got his back 100 percent. He's got my back 100 percent on that floor.”
And off it?
“Me and Kevin are very close,” said Westbrook.
At some point last season, the solidarity of the Thunder's best two players came under fire. The scrutiny only intensified under the microscope of the playoffs. When Westbrook squeezed off 30 shot attempts to Durant's 18 in a three-point road loss at Denver in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs, their playing styles became a national controversy, with Westbrook reaping the bulk of the blame. Two weeks later, Westbrook caught criticism again even after leading the Thunder to a triple-overtime road win at Memphis. In that game, Westbrook shot 33 times to Durant's 20.
Now, whether it's warranted or not, the two will continue to be scrutinized throughout this shortened 2011-12 season.
“As an organization, as a group, as a staff, it wasn't that big of a deal,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of the storyline that dominated last year's NBA playoffs.
“There's nothing really to talk about. I think they're great teammates.”
It wasn't just their shot attempts that people questioned. Some wondered whether Durant and Westbrook could ever coexist. They saw a classic alpha dog battle brewing and figured someone ultimately must go.
But Durant on Tuesday, as he has on numerous occasions, expressed his fondness for Westbrook, who is now eligible for a contract extension, and said he expects the point guard to be around for a long time.
“People dub us as the best two players on the team, so of course you're going to (perceive) some tension amongst a group of media guys or people from the outside looking in,” Durant said.
“But I think within our group, we bounce ideas off each other and sometimes I say, ‘Nah, Russ you might have to do it this way,' and we might talk about it for awhile and vice versa. But at the end of the day, we all want to win. He wants to win. I want to win, and we support each other. I'm excited he's on our team because he's a freak of nature.”
Brooks downplayed any moments of tension that might have been seen last season. The coach said it's normal.
“You're with each other so long, and there's going to be parts of the season that one of them will get irritated with the other,” Brooks said. “But there's no issues. Our guys are competitive and we want them to be competitive. We want them to continue to challenge each other in practice and they do.”
More than any alleged alpha dog feud or imbalance in their shot attempts, the on-court bond between Westbrook and Durant really seemed to boil down to one thing: two 23-year-old All-NBA talents learning to play together.
Anyone who watched the Thunder for any stretch outside of just the playoffs had long known that Westbrook had a tendency to make questionable decisions and Durant struggled to get open and routinely make high-percentage plays down the stretch.
Those traits ultimately became the basis of all the scrutiny.
As each player reverted to what came natural, national pundits blasted two young players who were only trying to help their team. Their awkward stares at each other on the court as they attempted to figure things out on the fly only fanned the flames.
“What people don't know is this game, it's got a lot of emotions with it,” said reserve point guard Eric Maynor, who famously replaced Westbrook down the stretch of a Western Conference Finals game against Dallas. “And when you're in the heat of a battle and you feel like somebody should have did something, maybe you get into an argument, and then people take them arguments and run with them. But we take the arguments and then in the next play we're on to the next one. We leave that game and we're still friends. Nobody has a problem with nobody on our team.”
When asked his reaction to the national response, Westbrook said he didn't have one.
“It was nothing. The reaction was that the Oklahoma City Thunder got to the conference finals,” Westbrook said. “As a team, I think we've done a great job of getting better. I wasn't really trying to make it about me or Kevin. I was more worried about how our team was doing.”
Westbrook said he talks to Durant every day and they've had positive communication going into this year about what they need to do to improve. All they can do now, Westbrook said, is learn from last season and move forward.
“That's the best thing you can do, just learn and get better with each other (through) practice,” Westbrook said. “Me and Kevin have been playing with each other for three years now. We're learning. It's definitely going to be miscommunication at times. But that's a part of basketball. But we're definitely going to learn.”