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The Thunder and the Warriors Are Not Rivals

That would imply close competition

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The noise inside Chesapeake Energy Arena for Kevin Durant’s return was deafening — everyone expected that. According to the broadcast, the crowd practiced booing for hours before the ball tipped inside the stadium. But the screaming and chanting were only part of the cold reception.

Durant’s favorite restaurant in OKC turned down his request to rent it out — a “no” that meant the restaurant gave up an estimated $30,000 to $35,000. Shirts were printed, signs were brandished, snakes were brought, cupcakes were worn. Durant waved and signed autographs anyway. Then he sunk his first shot on Saturday night in his old arena.

The first quarter ended 30–24, hinting that we’d actually get a competitive game. But less than three minutes into the second, the Warriors were up by 16, and the score was never close for the remainder of the game. In the fourth, Durant hit a 3 with 3:40 left. It would have been the dagger that ended it, but Golden State had been in control since the first half, so it was more of a butter knife.

Warriors versus Thunder, Round 3 was a one-possession playoff game trapped in a blowout’s body. The chippiness on the court during the 130–114 contest was the type usually reserved for postseason intensity. Russell Westbrook, king of aggression, went from dismissing the significance of Durant’s visit in pregame interviews to barking at him during a dead ball. This is probably not what Durant meant when he said that he and Russ would eventually work it out.

“I’m COMING. I’m COMING. I’m COMING,” insisted Westbrook. Durant reportedly fired back, “You’re losing, though.” He was right. If someone tuned in at that exact moment, they would be shocked to learn that it was an 18-point game. The score didn’t discourage Durant from scuffling with another former teammate in the third, when he confronted Andre Roberson about a foul, and they went nose-to-nose. They both got hit with double technicals over nothing but resentment … because it was a 21-point game.

A beef can develop from any small jab. But a rivalry — spiteful, combative, evading prediction — requires two competitive teams. The three games that Golden State and Oklahoma City have played feature more drama in the lead-up than on the court (until the third quarter on Saturday), and they’ve lacked actual competition.

The Thunder can’t replace Kevin Durant, and so far, the 31–24 team is far exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City stands seventh in the Western Conference, but games like Saturday’s make it clear that the team needs different personnel. The current plan on offense — Russell Westbrook ball handles, Russell Westbrook shoots, Russell Westbrook rebounds, Russell Westbrook passes after the board, Russell Westbrook’s teammate misses, Russell Westbrook rebounds, Russell Westbrook sinks a shot — is not enough to beat the Warriors once, and it probably won’t be enough against a top-four conference team come playoffs.

The Thunder sit on Westbrook’s potential, with 6 million in cap space and a second unit that gives up buckets at a directly inverse rate of creating them. Finding immediate scoring relief should be a major target for the team. Instead, as Jeff Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, the Thunder’s fifth-highest per-game scorer is still Josh Huestis, who has played in one game all season.

No matter how badly Oklahoma City wanted to go bucket-for-bucket against its old star’s new team, there is still a Durant-sized gap that needs filling. Until then, this is a bitter breakup between a player and his former team. Even Westbrook knows it.