Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along. Today, a familiar tandem serves as our King and Runner-up.
King of the Court: Russell Westbrook
The most impossible thing Westbrook is doing this season isn’t posting his near 39–12–12 triple-double average, it’s normalizing the experience. The Thunder have always looked their best when Westbrook essentially becomes OKC’s spiritual manna — when it’s not Russ’s athleticism that takes you by surprise, but everyone else’s. Against the Lakers, almost as if simply by playing with Westbrook, the rest of the team looked sharper, faster, and more powerful. The way players like Andre Roberson and Enes Kanter converted Westbrook’s pinpoint laser passes made it clear just how badly the team wants to live up to Russ’s impossible standard. We can talk about how Westbrook has altered our expectations of what a point guard can do, but his play boils down to the position’s oldest dictum: He makes his teammates better.
For more on Westbrook and the Thunder, please read my colleague Kevin O’Connor’s Monday column.
Runner-up: Kevin Durant
The Warriors aren’t good yet, and they know it. Golden State employs three of the greatest 3-point shooters of all time, and yet the team hasn’t played a single game in which it’s made even a third of its attempts from behind the arc. The Warriors are failing to communicate on defense, they can’t secure the glass on either end, and their play has been more regimented than it’s been in the past two years. Everyone is frustrated. They’re 2–1. Everything is fine. But the Warriors didn’t block out the sun on Independence Day to be fine.
There have been moments in which Durant has seemed, perhaps, a little too eager to meld with the Warriors’ team ethos. You’ll know when Durant has happened upon a quality read in the offense. In whipping a perfect pass to a teammate, his body tenses up and unbinds like a rubber band, running counter to the general fluidity that defines Durant’s entire state of play. In those moments, KD’s lanky frame becomes one big, exaggerated wink. He’s all but saying, You guys didn’t know I could do this, too.
Durant is in search of his bliss, but in the meantime, he’s doing a lot of screaming and snarling. He scored 37 points in Golden State’s tepid 106–100 win over Phoenix. Once again, he found himself shouldering the load on a team stuck in the rudiments of how to form a cohesive unit. Watching Durant on Sunday evening was watching a player burrowing into himself, finding reprieve in the creature comforts he’s developed since entering the league in 2007. What cognitive dissonance there was in watching KD play a vintage Thunder game for the Warriors was quickly washed away by the consonance of his offensive gifts. He got to the line 16 times against the Suns, a figure that Durant shockingly surpassed only twice in the past two seasons. He was perfect from his midrange sweet spots from 15 to 19 feet out, going 5-of-5 on attempts out of the post, on dribble drives, and on handoffs.
It was a version of Durant you’d recognize in any context, at any point in his 10-year career. It took Stephen Colbert nine months to realize there’s no shame in reviving a part of who you once were; it took Durant fewer than three games.
Honorable Mention: Marc Gasol’s New Celebration Dance
Gasol shot 4-for-6 from 3-point land against the Wizards on Sunday, which means that his output alone from behind the arc was as good as or outright better than the entire Grizzlies team in 25 games from last year. Gasol and the 39-year-old Vince Carter combined to shoot 9-for-12 from 3. Carter has hit 2,054 3-pointers in his career; Gasol’s up to 18 now.
As it turns out, adding a taste of modernity to an offense doesn’t mean having to sell your soul. The Grizzlies completely clamped down on the Wizards in the overtime period, allowing only one made basket on 10 attempts in the final five minutes of the game. Gasol sealed the victory with two 3s in less than two minutes. And you could have it all, indeed.