It started without much of anything, really. No handshake. No fistbump. No acknowledgement. Just a tip between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder to quietly start the most anticipated game of the season as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant faced off as foes for the first time.
The Warriors began slow, mismanaging their gameplan save for Durant, who had 13 points in the first quarter. Oklahoma City played as well as could be asked of them given the raucous crowd at Oracle Arena, but by early in the second quarter Golden State opened up a massive lead as Westbrook sat on the bench.
From that point on, there wasn’t much Westbrook or the Thunder could do to stop the four-time NBA scoring champion. Durant was everywhere — pouring in long-range threes, slashing to the lane, and talking smack to supporting members of the Oklahoma City roster.
At one point, Durant and Westbrook exchanged vicious blocks on each other that almost made you think the game wasn’t ridiculously out of hand. But it was, 68-43, at halftime in favor of the Warriors.
Durant had 29 points on 17 shots while Westbrook struggled on just 3-of-13 shooting after two quarters. The Thunder couldn’t seem to lend a hand to Westbrook, who remained surprisingly reserved given the circumstances. Only a few times did Westbrook force it, instead deciding to pass genially and with frequency in order to supply his teammates with opportunities.
Then came a clear shift.
After the second half started, Westbrook still raced up and down the floor to start the break, but instead of attacking he began passing by the time he got to the 3-point line. He defaulted to his teammates too early and too often. Maybe because he believed in them, or maybe because he wanted them to take some of the blame. It seemed as though he had purposely faded into the background.
Meanwhile, it seemed Durant was determined, with the help of this game, to steer the national conversation away from what it has been this year. Up nearly 30 points, Durant stayed on the floor for the Warriors until the 6:41 mark in the fourth quarter, playing with Steve Kerr’s bench unit. He needed it to be definitive.
Durant — long the quiet, humble star next to Westbrook’s raging, spinning asteroid — had the narrative flipped on his head. Somehow, Durant’s move to Oakland made Westbrook the sympathetic figure. The lanky 7-footer didn’t seem to like that very much, so he went out focused on to burying the Thunder. He succeeded, but I don’t think Durant changed the narrative.
Golden State would go on to beat Oklahoma City, 122-96. Durant had 39 points on 15-of-24 shooting, adding seven rebounds, one assist and one block. Westbrook wasn’t even the highest scorer for the Thunder, an honor that went to Victor Oladipo. The Thunder point guard went 4-of-15 from the field to match 10 assists, six turnovers, two blocks and one steal.
After an embarrassing stumble against the San Antonio Spurs to start the season, the Warriors have counterbalanced and appear to be, as it were, who we thought they were.
They clobbered Portland on Tuesday during a game in which Damian Lillard was in mid-season form. They slammed the Thunder, a projected playoff team by many, on Thursday. They are a Superteam™. I’m not sure that absolves Durant in the public eye.
If anything, destroying the newly branded anti-anti-hero in Westbrook with such force confirms the rest of the NBA’s fears about Golden State. That is, they are a team so powerful when fully integrated that not even Adam Silver thinks they should exist. That basketball, for us mere mortals, may be a futile exercise. That when the gods have decided they are bored in five or six years time, that we may have it back.
Until then, this looks like the Warriors’ league. We thought it would be this way. We even thought it might come this soon. But there were doubts. Doubts that they would have chemistry issues a la The Big 3 in Miami. That we could call upon lone heroes — the Lillards, Westbrooks, and James Hardens of this earth — to make them bleed.
In Westbrook, Durant helped slay at least one gladiator. When he left the court, it was the same as how it started: No handshake. No fistbump. No acknowledgement.
Just a win, and a dangerously waning hope for the rest of the NBA.