By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MEMPHIS – As problems go, this is not earth-shaking. But for the Oklahoma City Thunder, it is a matter they have to address.
Are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook maxing out their potential together? And are the Thunder maxing out their potential with the two of them?
Two questions, one issue that has swirled about the Thunder and their two all-NBA stars for several seasons. Sometimes it focuses on speculation of feuds or clashing personalities, sometimes on a hypothetical struggle for primacy.
Always, it springs from a desire to gauge the synergy generated by their world-class talents.
It remains a work in progress, both micro (the Thunder are locked in a 2-2 showdown with Memphis in their best-of-seven series, which continues in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night at 9 on NBA TV) and macro. Durant and Westbrook think they blend just fine, as far as what they’ve said publicly. Same goes for coach Scott Brooks, who even privately – or at least away from the glare of camera lights and microphones – sees no conflict.
Brooks thinks it’s a little reactionary, frankly, given Oklahoma City’s success. From their first season together (2008-09) through their fifth, the team’s winning percentage has climbed each year, starting low at .280 but soaring last season to .732. If you want to pick nits about a dip to .720 this season, know that it was due to winning 59 this season rather than 60, numbers any coach not named Popovich would welcome.
“We have to trust the things we’ve done all year,” Brooks said the other day in Memphis. “I love this team inside and out. I know how they’re wired. I know what they do and what they believe in, and they believe in each other. And when they have bad games, they want to come back and respond.”
Thunder fans await their response, then, while Grizzlies fans cringe at the thought after two underwhelming performances from Durant and Westbrook. In Game 3 last Thursday at FedEx Forum, OKC slipped behind in the series as its two stars missed shots, forced many, played independently of each other in stretches and largely neglected any other options.
In Game 4 Saturday, they were even worse, shooting a combined 11-of-45 and never warming up in yet another 53-minute thriller. Add the 6-for-22 they shot in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 3 and that 24.6 shooting percentage (17-of-69) is a testament to the work of Tony Allen and the rest of the Grizzlies’ defense.
The different in Game 4 was that Durant, Westbrook, Brooks and everyone else involved in the Thunder offense freed up 16 shots for reserve point guard Reggie Jackson. That’s only three fewer than he got, total, in the first three games. Jackson made 11 of them, eight more than he’d managed to that point, and saved the Thunder from a 3-1 hole in the series.
Well after midnight, center Kendrick Perkins made an interesting comment. “One thing I was pleased about tonight was, Russell and Kevin took a back seat and let Reggie take over. That says a lot about them also.”
And so it goes, the tug-of-war between doing it themselves or serving at times almost as decoys to keep lanes open and help defense away from someone like Jackson or Serge Ibaka.
“I mean, you want to win?” Westbrook said Friday. “Regardless of whoever’s open, whoever misses the shot? Nobody’s perfect. Not myself, not Kevin, not anybody. Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots. But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”
Decisions late in Friday’s game that Westbrook jacking up a 27-foot 3-pointer early in the clock and ignoring a wide-open Ibaka on the left baseline, followed immediately by Durant firing from 29 feet. Ibaka had only one shot after halftime in Game 3, though he did go 6-for-11 for 12 points in 42 minutes Saturday.
“We don’t go away from Serge,” Westbrook said. “I mean, our offense is not built around Serge. You have No. 35, Kevin Durant. Averaged 32 points.”
The OKC guard continued: “Don’t try to pull us apart. We all in this together. Serge is not on a separate team, Kevin’s not on a separate team, I’m not on a separate team. We on Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s not, ‘Serge got one shot, OK, we’ve got to find Serge shots.’ It don’t work like that. No, we all on the same team, we all in this together. Serge knows what he’s supposed to do for our team, Kevin knows what he’s supposed to do. It’s easy.”
“It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. Everybody know their role. Everybody knows their role.”
Durant and Westbrook have missed 68 shots over the past two games. They are 6-for-34 on 3-pointers. Had they shot with their usual accuracy, in the same mix of field-goal attempts and free throws, the two of them would have scored 75 in Game 3 (per Elias Sports Bureau) and 54 in Game 4. With 39 more points to sprinkle on OKC’s side of the board, it’s safe assuming no overtimes would have been needed and the Thunder would be up 3-1.
The biggest difference Saturday was in the distribution of shots. Durant and Westbrook took 153 of their team’s 258 in the first three games. In Game 4, it was a 45-45 split, their Thunder teammates producing 62 of the 92 points.
“I tell [Durant and Westbrook] all the time, if you only think you can impact a game scoring, we’re not going to be successful,” Brooks said. “Kevin had 13 rebounds and Russell had [nine]. they had seven and four assists. … We’re built on defense, we’re built on teamwork.”
Through four playoff games, Durant and Westbrook are averaging 49.5 shots compared to 38.0 in the regular season. Their teammates? They’re at 37.0 vs. Memphis compared to 44.7 over 82 games. Together, the two stars are putting up 16.3 3-pointers this round compared to 10.8 all season. Brooks largely has made peace with that, given the Grizzlies’ packed-paint defensive approach, though he prefers the kick-out variety that come later in shot clocks than we’ve seen.
“The ones we’re trying to eliminate are the ones that are off the dribble, with no passes,” Brooks said. “Those are the tough ones. Those are the ones that we don’t want.”
Said Durant, after OKC dug out of Game 3’s 17-point hole: “When you’re down that much, you can’t just keep throwing the ball around the perimeter. Sometimes you have to just improvise and make plays. So nah, we’re not playing a two-man show.”
No one denies this is mainly a two-man show. And it wouldn’t be the first.
Sometimes – as with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, for instance – there has been a clear separation of powers and duties. Some, like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, found a lid on their success named Bill Russell. Others – Earl Monroe joining Walt Frazier in the Knicks’ backcourt – required adjustments. Others still – George McGinnis plopped next to Julius Erving in 1976-77, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson teamed up in Denver – failed completely.
Two great scorers on one team always run the risk of becoming like the Paul Pierce-Antoine Walker act, or Joe Johnson-Josh Smith. That’s when the players “take turns” rather than fully meshing while teammates stand around.
That is at the heart of most criticism leveled at Durant and Westbrook. And because Westbrook is the point guard, initiating or breaking more plays, most place a greater burden on him.
“KD has won, what, four scoring titles?” one Western Conference scout said. “But Russell is so explosive, he feels he can get by any defender in front of him. Because he can get by any defender. You’re asking him to go away from what he’s most comfortable doing. The thing he trusts most in his game.”
Brooks believes that the two have blended their talents in their time together, with Westbrook aiding Durant rather than Durant simply accommodating Westbrook. One stat the OKC coach mentioned – percent of Durant field goals assisted by Westbrook – is inconclusive: Skipping the 2013-14 regular season due to Westbrook’s absences, that percentage each season from 2009-10 through 2012-13 has been 26.9, 39.2, 26.5 and 29.3.
That doesn’t mean, however, the rest of the players don’t suffer from the stars’ ball dominance. As Tom Ziller of SBNation.com noted after Game 3, over the final 11 minutes, Durant and Westbrook took 19 of OKC’s 21 shots (making five) and all 11 free throws.
More generally, the Thunder in 2013-14 were 34-12 with Westbrook and Durant in the lineup vs, 24-11 with Durant only. But they were 19-9 (.679) when both scored 20 points or more vs. 40-14 (.741), a better percentage, when neither did. And they were 6-1 when Westbrook had 10 assists or more.
“It’s tough on those guys,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “They’re such big stars that I think they get that unfair criticism just because they’re under the microscope more than anybody else in the league. It’s part of, I think, being a superstar in the league and it’s tough to deal with.”
The most obvious recent example of an NBA power couple is LeBron James and Dwyane Wade since they came together in Miami in 2010. Prior to teaming up, Wade averaged 25.4 points as the Heat’s primary scoring threat. Since James arrived, Wade has averaged 22.2. James’ scoring average has dipped far less, from 27.8 points a game to 26.9.
Wade has talked of consciously taking “a step back” in his approach, an adjustment that didn’t happen automatically or easily but in time helped produce their 2012 and 2103 championships.
“I don’t know if it was so much two alpha dogs,” said Memphis Mike Miller, a Miami teammate who saw the dynamic hammered out over James’ and Wade’s first three season. “I think it was two people who were accustomed to doing that. When you’ve done it for eight, nine years that way, it’s difficult to make that change right away. So it’s a feeling-out process and a learning curve that everyone has to go through.
“But when you do it and win, it makes it easier to continue to do it, right?”
It also might have helped that, while both Wade and James were drafted in 2003, Wade was nearly three years older than James. Wade was ready to yield. It would have been wrong for James, who was and might still be the best player in the league, to step back.
It’s different for Durant and Westbook, who were born 45 days apart in 1988. While Durant is more accomplished and the likely 2014 Most Valuable Player, some insiders speculate that Westbrook still feels as if he’s proving himself (though the Thunder don’t believe Westbrook harbors James Harden-like ambitions, aching to run his own offense).
“Their offense right now is so predicated on those guys scoring that they have to, especially in playoff situations,” Miller said. “So it’s hard for a person like KD or a person like Russell. If they’re not aggressive and they don’t score 30 points, and they lose the game … LeBron got that all the time. That’s what makes it difficult. For guys like that, it’s the position you’re put in: Go get us 35, 40 points.”