It was all over the sports television and radio airwaves today: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were involved in a verbal altercation during the game last night and had to be separated.
I have read and listened to many analysts’ perspectives over the past 12 hours. Some have been outrageous and some have been fairly level-headed opinions. The one thing that I think everyone would agree on is that the Durant/Westbrook relationship wouldn’t be an issue if the Thunder finished 20-62 the last two seasons.
With great success comes a greater spotlight. Everything this team does all season will be picked apart by hundreds of analysts who are trying to fill thousands of hours of television and radio. It is frustrating for me as a fan. I would rather have stories written about how our defense has looked very strong so far; or about how Durant made clutch shot after clutch shot to protect the lead (an MVP-esque performance, I might add). I would have even liked if people talked about how James Harden had the ball in his hands more than usual late in the game. Those are examples of stories I would like to read the morning after a big Thunder win – not about a meaningless spat on the bench during a timeout.
However, in the world of 24-hour ESPN programming and over-the-top sports personalities, we must live with this.
Everyone has talked extensively about the high expectations of this team. Pretty much everyone is picking them to win the division again, many are picking them to win the Western Conference, and some even legitimately expect them to win the whole darn thing. Those are definitely lofty expectations.
My personal opinion on the altercation: I believe Durant when he says that the two don’t always see eye-to-eye on certain things, but he and Westbrook have each other’s back 100 percent of the time. I have played enough competitive sports in my life to know that sports require a ton of emotion. If someone’s heart is not into it, the lack of emotion will show through on the court. Lack of emotion is the exact opposite problem Westbrook has. He wants to win. He plays hard every night. Even last night, Westbrook was having a very poor night shooting the ball, but did you watch him on the defensive side of the ball? He was going all out!
I never felt like Westbrook was forcing shots throughout the game. Most all of his shot attempts came in the flow of the offense (or near the end of the shot clock). I know 13 shots sound like a lot when you are not making them, but Westbrook is the second leading scorer on the team. The team’s success is dependent upon Westbrook making shots, which is why the victory is so compelling despite his poor offensive performance.
In my opinion, the more relevant issue for Westbrook moving forward is his ability to control his emotion on the court. I thought he showed a lot of maturity during the game last night. He knew he was having an off night shooting the ball, so he deferred to Durant and Harden more down the stretch. Also as I mentioned, he was not having an impact on the offensive end of the floor so he stepped up his intensity on defense. This time last year, I don’t know if Westbrook responds that way. I think it is important to highlight areas in which Westbrook has matured. Sure, he has room to improve in a variety of areas, but it takes time. If he is blessed with good health, Westbrook could play in the league for 15 more seasons (or more).
I still have a ton of confidence in Westbrook. If the team’s biggest problem is that the two best players care so much about winning that they sometimes argue, I like our situation. Sometimes the hardest thing for an emotional player to do is learn how to channel that emotion to accomplish positive results. Westbrook’s display of second-half defensive intensity leads me to believe that our coaching staff is doing a fantastic job mentoring Westbrook. The 23-year old point guard still has a lot of learning to do, but I like the direction he’s moving.
I fully expect Westbrook to shake all the haters and have a spectacular game tonight at home versus the defending champions because, well, he’s the original honey badger and he doesn’t care.
Thunder fans will have to listen to mindless idiots all season debate whether the Thunder should trade Westbrook. However, just remember that the same fire and passion that caused Durant and Westbrook to argue during a timeout is being unleashed against opposing teams on a nightly basis.
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