Much like the first two times they played each other this season, cameras and storylines will follow Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s every move on Saturday, when the ex-teammates square off in Oklahoma City for the first time since Durant signed with the Warriors last summer.
For months, the running question for each player has been: When was the last time you two spoke with the other? And as they confirm that they haven’t spoken, the narrative becomes even icier with every matchup.
Durant largely dismissed the tension between them as “fake drama” and a media creation. But on a basic level, Westbrook has reason to be upset with his one-time teammate. Though Durant had every right to leave, his departure has made every aspect of Westbrook’s job harder than it’s ever been, while Durant has had to do less than ever before.
Westbrook, averaging a triple-double for the season, has been undeniably incredible in Durant’s absence. But a chiropractor is usually necessary when a player puts this much of his team on his back.
Westbrook, in trying to make up for Durant, is on pace to log the highest usage rate (the percentage of a team’s possessions that end with a certain player while he’s on the court) in NBA history, by far. By contrast, Durant is posting the lowest usage rate of his career. Westbrook, handling the ball far more often, is turning it over more than ever. Durant has fewer turnovers than ever before.
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Durant has a career-low isolation rate; Westbrook is going one-on-one more than he has since 2011-12 (just 14.7 percent of his 2-pointers have been assisted this season).1 And Durant, part of Golden State’s more free-flowing offense, is cutting and moving without the ball more than ever before, while Oklahoma City still throws fewer passes than any team in the association.
We’ve seen Westbrook change his game this way before: He put up similar per-100-possession stats in 2014-15, when Durant missed most of the season because of a fractured foot. Then, as now, Westbrook’s true-shooting and effective field-goal rates declined while he was tasked with so much more ballhandling responsibility. (The Thunder, currently in seventh place in the West, finished the 2014-15 season tied for eighth and missed the playoffs.)
The uphill battle that Westbrook faces now doesn’t take away from the fact that Durant will have his fair share of pressure in the months to come. While this season has been a breeze so far for him and the Warriors, who own the NBA’s best record, the noise will be deafening if Golden State stumbles even the slightest bit this postseason. And Durant, fair or not, would likely be the clear target of that criticism, since his high-profile signing was supposed to make the Warriors invincible.
But for now, and until the playoffs — the Warriors and Thunder currently have about a 21 percent chance of meeting, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA forecast — the focus remains on Durant and Westbrook, and whether their strained, icy relationship shows any signs of thawing.
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