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The Rules of the NBA Revenge Game

When Russell Westbrook squared off against Kevin Durant last week, everyone watching knew what was happening. The players knew what was happening. The media knew what was happening. Even if KD and Russ said it was just another game, it was anything but. It was a Revenge Game. And Revenge Games have rules.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant facing each other, with an illustration of the court engulfed in flames Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“… To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851); The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Vengeance is what separates humankind from beasts. When attacked, an animal will fight or flee, caring only for its survival. Later, an animal will not stop to consider, as a person would, that it has been wronged, nor does it have the foresight and cunning required to repay an offense. Moby-Dick is timeless, in part, because it ascribes this human characteristic to a freaking whale. The desire for vengeance, and the need to temper it, is the basis for every system of justice conceived by the human mind. Even those that reverberate across the barrier between life and death. Karma, purgatory, heaven and hell — these concepts repackage vengeance as a cosmic balancing of scales. That’s how important revenge is.

Which brings us to a sacred event in sports: the Revenge Game, in which the primary motivation for winning, or performing in outstanding fashion, is a grievance. There are several styles of Revenge Game. I’ll get into those in a bit.

In a world where money rules the day and titles are the ultimate measure of success, where the respective goals of athletes, teams, and fans are rarely aligned, where big-market superteams run roughshod over the competition, the Revenge Game offers something vital and rare: justice.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent 108–91 win over Golden State has the following hallmarks of a classic Revenge Game:

1. Thou Shalt Lie

Reporter: “Have you gotten to the point where this is just another game? Or does it mean something more?”

Russell Westbrook: “I’ve been at that point [moment of extremely performative contemplation] since I got drafted.”

The player or players who seek vengeance mustn’t cop to anything more than a professional interest in the game. Revenge can never be acknowledged as a motivation. Doing so would be a tacit admission that the opposition hurt your feelings. This must be avoided at all costs.

Unwritten rules are central to the sporting experience. And every unwritten rule has to do with the proper management of feelings. Talking about feelings is uncomfortable in any setting. But in sports, where athletes are expected to transcend quotidian pettiness, the only acceptable medium for expressing emotion is the game itself. You can cry when you win or lose a big game. You can be angry at a missed call or convey anger through a savage dunk or by screaming after said dunk. This is why Russell Westbrook, the Petty King, is the perfect vessel for vengeance. The man lies with the same brazen abandon with which he devastates opposing rims. And all of his lies are about his feelings. Russ, like every player before and after him, would never say something like, “Kevin Durant deciding to not be my teammate anymore and telling me that via text after all we had been through really hurt my feelings, which is why this game is so important.” And yet everything about the way he plays against the Warriors screams exactly that.

Unlike this chaotic, random stream of events that we call life, sports operate according to predictable timetables and publicly announced schedules. The truest kind of revenge is a headman’s ax that falls without warning. Remember: a dish best served cold. That out-of-nowhere shock is impossible with sports. The best way to simulate the deceit vital to a satisfying act of revenge is to constantly deny that the game in question is in any way about revenge.

2. Regular-Season and Elimination Games Are the Only Pure Revenge Games

This is counterintuitive, but stick with me. For a game to be considered a Revenge Game, vengeance must be the primary motivation. Thus regular-season games, like last week’s OKC-GSW clash, which have little to no bearing on anything except the wounded pride of a team and its fans, are exemplars of the form.

Counter-counterintuitively to what I just wrote, elimination games are the best Revenge Games. Why not championship games? Because winning the title is too much of a motivation. The offended team or player, under the glare of a Game 7 in the Finals or a March Madness matchup, would’ve played hard anyway.

3. Insults Matter

Players and coaches instinctively avoid so-called bulletin board material. No one wants to provide the best athletes in the world with extra motivation. If anything, it’s in a team’s best interest to soften up its opponents. This is why athlete interviews are such defensive propositions. A player gains almost nothing from shitting on an opponent. So when a player verbally lays into a foe, that’s notable. And that’s the spice that sweetens the revenge. But there’s a balance to be struck. The insults can’t cross the line into open beefing, or the Revenge Game becomes a rivalry.

As always, Russell Westbrook’s various unsubtle but wonderful jabs at Kevin Durant (the Cupcake Instagram, the photographer’s bib, the “Adopt a Cat” T-shirt) are the gold standard in Revenge Game shit-talking. Remember, the key is to insult without openly acknowledging the stakes. That Westbrookian ambiguity is key to setting up a Revenge Game.

4. The Grievances of the Community at Large Are Paramount

In October 1956, the Soviet Union, acting to put down widespread protests that had grown into an armed revolution, invaded Hungary with 17 army divisions. By November 3, Budapest was encircled.

On December 6, 1956, with Soviet troops still operating in their homeland, Hungarian athletes faced off against the USSR in an Olympic water polo match in Melbourne, Australia. The match, which Hungary won 4–0, is legendary for its violence, and is known today as the Blood in the Water match. It is the greatest Revenge Game of all time.

Also notable: Iran’s 2–1 win over the United States in the 1998 World Cup, is, whatever your read on the historic or political context, a Revenge Game.

5. “Violence Is Never the Answer, but Sometimes It Is”

Matt Barnes has contributed exactly two good things to the culture. He is the foil in one of the greatest sports GIFs in history. The second is the above quote. Admit it: You got charged up when Russ and KD went forehead-to-forehead in the third quarter of last week’s blowout. You wanted something to happen. Kind of. Like, in a way that does not condone violence, but in a way that definitely acknowledges that violence is part of the human experience and a part that is entertaining in controlled doses. Did I want Russ and KD to fight? No. But also I did. I want to visit the alternate dimension where Russ and KD swing on each other, in which Russell unambiguously wins the fight, then teleport back to this one, where no one’s nursing serious head injuries or is suspended.

Without any further ado, here are the six types of Revenge Games:

The Jilted Ex

When a player chooses to leave a team, either by free agency or by forcing a trade, and that player’s former team beats his current one, that’s a Jilted Ex.

Example:

The Living Well

The inverse of the Jilted Ex. When a player, for whatever reason, forces his way out of town and then returns to roast his former team, that’s the Living Well.

Example:

There are many examples of this. But perhaps none is more ruthless than LeBron James’s first game back in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. James, you recall, infamously broke up with the Cavaliers, and the entire state of Ohio, via a 75-minute (THIS IS TRULY RIDICULOUS TO THINK ABOUT NOW; 75 MINUTES!!! HALF AN HOUR SHORTER THAN DUNKIRK) special on ESPN. While the method that LeBron chose to reveal his decision can be questioned, the substance of it can’t. LeBron would appear in four Finals as a member of the Heat, winning two.

Under conditions that were acrimonious, the King returned to the Land in December 2010. He performed his trademark powder toss, making Wally Szczerbiak, among many others, really upset, on the way to scoring 38 points during the Heat’s 118–90 demolition of the Cavaliers.

The You Didn’t Believe in Me

When a team trades a player against his will, and that player returns to torch his former employer, that’s a YDBiM. Fear of this type of Revenge Game is why many teams take care to deal star players only to teams outside of their division and conference.

Example:

On Monday night, Victor Oladipo, for some reason thriving now that he doesn’t have to share a backcourt with Russell Westbrook, laid an unholy beating upon his former squad, the Orlando Magic. The Magic traded Oladipo to the Thunder in 2016 as part of the deal for Serge Ibaka, who grows more washed by the day. ’Dipo, now an Indiana Pacer, went for 26 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four blocks, and the Pacers won going away, 121–109.

The You Talkin’ to Me?

When a player or coach, on purpose or by accident, through word or deed, insults another player, causing that player to seek revenge, that’s a YTtM.

Example:

In January 1997, Michael Jordan avenged himself on Jeff Van Gundy and the Knicks after JVG referred to MJ as “a con man.” Jeff’s reasoning was that MJ “used” his relationships with other players as a way to charm and disarm them, thus making them easier to beat. Jordan responded with a 51-point eruption, punctuated by screaming stuff in JVG’s direction.

The Lawn Mower

When a coach or team executive maligns a player — or, if the player perceives that to be the case, even if that’s not accurate — the ensuing Revenge Game is known as a Lawn Mower. That’s a reference to this classic Carmelo Anthony jab at his former Denver Nuggets coach, George Karl.

Example:

In December 2006, Wizards star Gilbert Arenas scored 54 points on the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns, including the game winner, snapping their 15-game winning streak. After hitting a nearly 40-foot buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter, Arenas stared down Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni and his luscious mustache. The reason? D’Antoni was part of the USA Basketball coaching staff that cut Gil the previous summer.

The Bamboozled

When a player loses an award to another player, causing him to go out of his way to embarrass said player.

Example:

Hakeem Olajuwon dismantled David Robinson in Game 5 of the 1995 Western Conference finals after watching Robinson accept the MVP award.

Revenge is primordial and complex, savage in inspiration and, at its highest level, sublime in execution. A good Revenge Game is the next best thing to a championship.

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of LeBron James’s Finals appearances with the Heat. He appeared in four, not three.