Way back when, Macedonian generals returned home from battle to a heap of lavish praise and gifts. As long as their aggression brought back the fruitful spoils of devastation, all was forgiven. That is Russell Westbrook. If he were an historical figure, I’d assume he’d be Alexander The Great (If you take anything away from this, remember that Alexander was Macedonian, not Greek). Capable of conquering in a flash, but ultimately renounced and rebuked by future schoolteachers everywhere. “Be humble,” they would say. “Live within your means. Don’t overextend yourself.” But we are the masses, and we don’t listen to the wise words of a few. When we hit the street courts to emulate our favorite players, we don’t take a charge and scream “Big Baby!” Instead we chuck a fadeaway from the elbow, clinging to ephemeral hope while teetering on the precipice of utter disappointment. But then the shot goes in, and calamity turns to jubilation. Poor shot selection turns into greatness.
For three and a half quarters, this is Russell Westbrook. He meanders through the game, aimlessly fulfilling his every desire on a whim. For three and a half quarters, we indulge ourselves in the best part of Westrbook’s game. His blazing speed and unabashed invasion of the paint remind us of the beauty that basketball can be. There’s something alluring about a smooth crossover followed by a finger roll unperturbed by the rim. To the unenlightened, it’s merely large men gathered in a small space. But the basketball fan can extract meaning, and eloquence, and emotion, and a host of other seemingly unrelated adjectives. Westbrook is that answer. He’s at the heart of our desire.
The fourth quarter clock passes the six-minute mark. Possessions slow. Misses are that much more heart wrenching. A Nick Collison rebound causes Jeff Van Gundy to yelp in delight. But the beauty that we appreciate in Westbrook evolves from authoritative to transgressing. He is no longer conquering, but usurping. But only because Kevin Durant is a passive king. Just as we laud Westbrook for his confidence and ambition, we kneel at Durant and his storybook caricature. He’s dominant, yet unselfish. Industrious but respectful. Resourceful but loyal. Cruel on the hardwood, kind off of it. When it’s time to stamp down legacy, the greats momentarily reverse this trend. MJ and Kobe tap into something more. It is this same part of them that transcends basketball and pervades their general personalities. “I want to beat you, slaughter you, put you back together and hack you to pieces again.” But not only do they beat you, they let you know about it. And then step on you. And trash talk some more. And then they score another basket, jawing at their defender as he crawls back to the locker room. Durant may be a scoring champion with unparalleled levels of shot-making ability, but he’s missing that indefinable something else. That same something else we that we disparage if it’s not the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. I want to call it a killer instinct, but it’s not; everyone has the instinct to close out games. It’s just extra. Russell Westbrook has it, but is missing that elite basketball skill which Durant possesses.
This is how the Gods made the Thunder – unrelenting youthful enthusiasm, loose reigns to guide the stallions. Ultimately this protocol has led to a consistent yet scary narrative: build a big lead, don’t blow it at the end. During these playoffs, they have seen both sides of the coin. They have come back from huge deficits, riding the unpredictable wings of Westbrook and the hot hand of Durant. On a few occasions, they have finished off these comebacks. This is how narrative lives. It changes, transforms and evolves. When retold or reread, it is not the same. The miniscule changes throughout the chapters culminate with a slightly different ending. A missed free throw here, a made three there. That’s the difference with the Thunder. They never know whether a botched play in the second quarter will impact the final result. The Mavericks, meanwhile, don’t worry. Dirk will swoop in to clean up the mistakes. Keep him within striking range and the storybook ending will write itself. Until Durant throws Westbrook off the throne that is rightfully his, the Thunder will remain just beneath the cusp.
What do you think?
Follow Dylan on Twitter at @DylanBotB.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.