By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – Ninety minutes before tipoff, a severe storm warning was issued. A minute or so before halftime, the lights at Chesapeake Energy Arena suddenly dimmed. Lightning, said the reports, struck a transformer.
Forget that. As the Los Angeles Clippers can attest, it was pure Thunder.
“They did exactly what Scotty Brooks said they were going to do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after being beaten 112-101, in Wednesday’s series-evening Game 2. “He said they were going to make us feel them, and I thought they did that.”
Chris Paul and company got a double-barrel dose of MVP Kevin Durant and his right-hand man, Russell Westbrook, a man who many still believe the Thunder would be better off without. Six years together and the notion will not be buried. Perhaps, but not likely, one of the most impressive one-two performances in playoff history will do it: In Game 2, Durant and Westbrook ended up one Durant assist shy from becoming the first tandem to record a triple-double in the same game.
On the night he was presented his MVP trophy in front a roaring crowd of 18,203, a group that included his mom and agent Jay-Z, Durant finished with a game-high 32 points on 10-for-22 shooting, a game-high 12 rebounds and nine assists.
Westbrook combined all of his mesmerizing athletic ability into a storm of hyper-activity, bouncing up for mid-range jumpers, diving on the floor, fearlessly leaping at the rim on drives and relentlessly lunging for offensive rebounds. He closed out the night with a bit of a gift assist from the official scorekeeper, allowing for a third triple-double of the playoffs: 31 points on 13-for-22 shooting, 10 assists and 10 rebounds — six offensive. He had three steals, too.
Some 30 hours earlier, Durant had moved this entire city to tears with a heartfelt MVP speech. He tearfully singled out every one of his teammates, all of whom joined him on the stage, and purposefully saved praise for his point guard for last:
“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back through it all,” Durant told Westbrook. “Everybody loves you here. I love you.”
“I love him like a brother,” Westbrook said after the big win. “We’ve been together since I’ve been here. He’s taught me so much as a player and also things off the floor. I’m really grateful for what he said.”
The emotional, high-strung Westbrook will never be the more naturally affable Durant. But there’s a pretty strong record building that Durant might not have been holding up that MVP trophy Wednesday night without his complex yet uniquely talented sidekick. The two 25-year-olds, seeking a second trip to the NBA Finals in three years, keep tuning out the noise to make more of their own.
“We set the bar high for ourselves, we have a high standard we try to reach,” Durant said. “We both work extremely hard. One thing about Russ, he commands so much out of everybody and he brings the level of the team up, just his intensity, just his effort. It is fun to play with a guy like that who loves the game so much, who wants to win so much. It’s just a great chemistry we have and it’s growing every day.”
Paul’s uncanny patience, skill and a career night splashing 3s dominated Game 1. In Game 2, he got hit with early foul trouble, allowing Westbrook to take advantage of the smaller Darren Collison.
Even when Paul was on the floor, Westbrook’s relentlessness at both ends shaped the direction of the game. He took only four 3-point shots — made two — a clear sign that he wasn’t rushing shots early in the clock or pounding the rock and foregoing open teammates.
The Thunder’s ball movement was on point, with Westbrook sneaking passes into Serge Ibaka and setting up Kendrick Perkins (a rare explosion of eight points and nine rebounds) against the Clippers’ foul-maligned center, DeAndre Jordan. Westbrook penetrated and kicked to Thabo Sefolosha for open 3s. Sefolosha finally started to knock those down just as he picked up a lagging defensive effort early on, and was key to the Thunder’s 33-point third quarter, turning a five-point halftime advantage into a a commanding 94-77 lead.
When Westbrook gets his teammates involved, the pressure forced upon defenses can be overwhelming. When he has the volume cranked and Durant has space to do his thing, it’s lights out more often than not.
Sometimes it’s hard to guess if a 10-for-31 or a 10-for-16 Westbrook will show up. Those are his shooting numbers from his first two triple-doubles in these first nine playoff games. Wednesday was another efficient and lethal endeavor. It’s also well worth noting that he logged 41 minutes, his fourth 40-plus-minute game of the postseason, making everybody forget about a right knee that was operated on three times from last April through December.
“I know I’m going to get a competitive Russ, and that’s what I look for every game,” Brooks said. “He’s going to give you everything he has. He’s not going to make every shot, but he’s going to compete, and after the game you know that you’ve played against Russell. And I respect that.”