For about nine minutes last night, it looked like the Thunder might beat the Warriors. But then Jerami Grant dunked and screamed in Kevin Durant’s face, Durant went supernova and scored 39 points, and the Warriors won by 26.
This match-up was being hyped for months, since the Warriors won Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, and especially since Durant decided to join them in free agency. It was preceded by all manner of slights and imagined slights, trash talking and denials of trash talking, arguments about the propriety of superstars joining superteams, and a whole bunch of other shit.
We got some more of that in this game, too. Westbrook wore an outfit that might’ve been a shot at Durant, and they each got in a block of the other’s shot. Grant screamed at Durant, Draymond Green got a technical for shouting after Westbrook got blocked, and a benched Enes Kanter and Durant got into it. After the game, Durant and the Thunder tried very hard to ignore each other, with only him and assistant Royal Ivey saying hi.
But when it came to actual basketball, the gulf between the two teams was pretty clear. As one analyst put it, the Thunder’s roster is really just Westbrook, Steven Adams, and a pillowcase of stale bread. If Westbrook can’t make something happen by diving into the lane they don’t really have an offense, and without Serge Ibaka or Durant’s long limbs, they don’t have much rim protection either.
And to be fair, this formula led the Thunder to a 4-0 record (against pretty weak opposition, and the Clippers), and a 10 point lead against the Warriors. But it wasn’t sustainable for more than nine minutes—especially not on a back-to-back—and I suspect won’t be sustainable for an entire season, unless Westbrook can put up a 40-12-10 every night. It seems likely that at the end of the season the Thunder will be scrapping for the sixth playoff seed.
As for the Warriors, after a pretty ugly opening three games, it is clear that they are figuring it out. The ball is moving more crisply, they’re learning how to continuously feed whichever of Curry or Durant is hot, and adjusting to the fact that with Durant they have one of the better slashers in the game. On defense there are still too many easy back cuts and blown rotations, but at least opponents don’t have a parade of easy layups at the rim any longer. The offense is already amongst the league’s best; the defense will necessarily take longer, but it seems like it will get there eventually.
There is a rivalry here, sort of, that will probably exist between whichever two teams Durant and Westbrook play on for the rest of their NBA careers’. But for the foreseeable future, it will be a rivalry that’s more competitive off the court than on.