As wins stack up, Thunder dismiss talk of tension between stars
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been dogged by rumors of a rift
The Thunder, however, talk of two competitive stars who don't have issues
Westbrook says the media scrutiny has brought him closer to Durant
Kevin Durant wandered toward a reporter near the court before a game at Golden State last week to try to understand something that clearly had been bothering him for a while. The Oklahoma City small forward had overheard a television segment about himself and fellow Thunder star Russell Westbrook when he decided to reverse the roles and question the media.
"Why does everyone want to talk about who the best player is on our team, whether it's me or Russell?" he reportedly asked, in the sort of genuine way that has endeared him to the masses.
It was such a classic Durant move, right there with his sweep-through with the ball or the shimmy before shooting free throws. The NBA's back-to-back scoring champion just wishes this whole line of questioning would go away, that everyone would leave him and his Thunder teammates alone until the time comes for the questions that really matter to be answered.
The playoffs will be here in a few months, and the Thunder will then be judged by whether they'll be able to take the toughest step -- from first-round loss in 2010 to Western Conference finals loss last season to the now-believable possibility that they could win it all. James Harden is a leading candidate for the Sixth Man Award (unless Monday's start -- not to mention lackluster performance -- becomes the norm), Serge Ibaka is third in the league in blocks, Kendrick Perkins is getting comfortable by the day, and there's just no reason -- as Durant sees it -- to get caught up in the silly soap opera stuff.
But there is airtime to be filled and ink to be used between now and then, so the endless analysis will continue no matter how many wins the Thunder pile up with the allegedly dysfunctional duo.
"That's just how it is," Westbrook said as he sat one locker away from Durant. "Sometimes people try to break up the team and find a way to mess up something that's good. That's kind of hard to do, especially with myself, because I really couldn't care less what somebody else was talking about -- especially if we're still winning."
Yet despite the winning (a league-best 16-4 record) and the Thunder's clear lack of concern about their stars' long-term chemistry (Westbrook signed a five-year, $80 million extension on Jan. 20), the chatter about their relationship that reached its peak during last season's conference finals has continued. The latest fuel for the fire, of course, was the spat involving Durant and Westbrook (and others) during a victory at Memphis on Dec. 28.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has seen his share of bad relationships in his 23 years in the NBA, 10 coming as a reserve guard who played for six teams and the rest spent on benches in Denver, Sacramento and Oklahoma City. And this, he swears, is not that.
"Nobody ever asks me about [their relationship]; that's the thing that always bothered me," the fourth-year coach said. "I read about it. I see it, and I try to block it out as much as I can. But my job is to coach the team on the floor, and I don't see [a problem].
"I think it's a very common thing to try to pit two players against each other -- good and bad -- but that's not the case. If they are [at odds], then they're in the wrong business because they'd be incredible actors. They have never shown me one reason to think that they don't like each other. Not one."
Durant, for the record, made his on-screen debut last summer in a yet-to-be-released basketball comedy. Still, it's hardly the kind of Oscar-worthy work that could have helped him hide a feud.
"Everybody on this team has gotten into arguments, with me, with all the guys among each other," Brooks said. "That's what competitive teams do, and I see nothing wrong with it. Now, if it's a daily occurrence, then we have a problem. But I always believe that anger is a good emotion. It has to be a visitor; it can't have a permanent place. But we have guys who are competitive, and Russell and Kevin are as competitive as anybody on our team."
In deciding to give Westbrook a max deal, Thunder general manager Sam Presti all but announced that the merits of having an aggressive point guard with blinding speed outweighed the fact that he'll never be mistaken for Ricky Rubio. That's been even more true this season than last, as Westbrook's assist average has declined from 8.2 to 5.8. Yet while his score-first mentality means that the Thunder offense won't always be the all-hands-on-deck variety, the potency of this pairing is too often overlooked.
Durant isn't among those selling Westbrook short.
"People have doubted him so many times," Durant said. "They doubted him when we took him fourth [out of UCLA in 2008], people doubted him when he was coming into college [from Leuzinger High School in Southern California]. I'm just so happy that he's proving people wrong and getting what he deserves."
Westbrook believes the scrutiny about his relationship with Durant has had a counterintuitive effect.
"Everybody else in the media tries to say that [they don't get along]," said Westbrook, who shared a very different stage with Durant last summer during an impromptu rap session at a club. "But nobody knew what was going on. It didn't do anything but bring us closer. Now I don't really think there's too much you can say about us not being together."
There was plenty to be said on Dec. 28, though, when it seemed as if Presti's worst nightmares were being realized in the second quarter against the Grizzlies. But the disagreement -- which also involved Thabo Sefolosha and Perkins, the main target of Westbrook's ire by the time an on-court argument had carried over to a timeout on the bench, according to sources -- was far more complicated than the Durant-vs.-Westbrook headlines led people to believe.
"First, it had to do with me," Brooks said. "I'm yelling at the bigs because they're not helping Russell on the pick-and-roll, and then Russell got frustrated and they were yelling at each other. We do that all the time.
"Most of the teams I've been on had issues on the court, in timeouts, at halftime. It's the three or four bad teams I've been on where they didn't even care."
There's no shortage of passion when it comes to Thunder, and it figures to spill over again this season at some point. But there are bigger concerns in Durant's eyes, namely the fact that the easiest way to quiet the critics -- reaching the Finals and perhaps winning a title -- won't be easy at all.
"It's easy for people to assume we'll take that next step and for people to think it's easy, you know what I mean?" Durant said. "But this road is never easy -- no matter what."
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