Before Sunday night, it’s all we thought about since July 4th — that infamous Summer date when Kevin Durant officially announced his divorce from Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder – what was going to happen when they had to play together on the all-star team in February?
Before Sunday night, Russell Westbrook took no prisoners. You were either with him or against him. If you were on the other side of the thin red line, you better be prepared for a relentless basketball Armageddon descending upon you for 48 minutes with no option of mercy.
Before Sunday night, it was basketball blasphemy to even suggest that a play from an exhibition all-star game had significant NBA landscape impact – let alone be the most important play of the season.
That all changed … Sunday night.
When the game tipped off, it honestly didn’t matter if Giannis Antetokounmpo threw down a dunk from half court or Steph Curry swished an 80-foot between-his-legs blind-folded Hail Mary; nothing mattered until Russ and Durant shared the floor.
The two had seemingly avoided each other all weekend:
Whether it was intentional or not:
It was tense. It was just so damn tense. The most accurate way of illustrating the vibe in the building is calling it The Cuban Missile Crisis of basketball. Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Western Conference, was the man with his hand over the button. The fate of the basketball world was at his fingertips. Was he going to launch the nuclear content missiles and play the two together? Or was he going to protect his star player from the wrath of Oklahoma City’s EF5 point guard tornado and bench him before Russ could enter the game?
Remember: with Westbrook, nothing is off-limits.
This is the man who came out with a “Now I do what I want!” Jordan-sponsored commercial shortly after Durant left him:
Who, day after day, would tip-toe the line (but never crossing it) of starting an all-out war with unprecedented precision:
Who tomahawked a social media grenade at Durant on the biggest day of his career.
After six months of petty attacks + a few on-the-court skirmishes, there was a part of you that thought Russ, if put on the floor with Durant at the same time, might try and posterize his own teammate.
The thirst for blood inside The Smoothie King Center reminded me of the Coliseum audience in Gladiator when Maximus outduels Tigris of Gaul and sets him up for death. Maximus asks for permission from Emperor Commodus as the thousands in attendance chant in unison: “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” regardless of what consequences the action may result in.
Fast-forward to the midway point of the first quarter and oh my god he’s putting Russ in and not taking Durant out. This is it.
Possession after possession go by with the entire world watching the game under a microscope, no declaration of war just yet.
But then Durant got the ball in transition with his back facing the rim. Almost immediately, a fellow West teammate cut towards the hoop and was open for an easy bucket. Who was it? Russell Westbrook, who had just blown by his defender. And then it happened:
Wait a second, did we just witness The Potsdam Conference of NBA basketball? Surely Westbrook was just doing his civic duty of getting buckets no matter where they came from – even via Durant – but did the two JUST SHARE A POSITIVE MOMENT TOGETHER?
The Russell Westbrook I know, or at least the one I thought I knew, would have grabbed that alley-oop out of the air, fell back down to Planet Earth with the ball in his grasp, and punted that sonuvabitch into the 20th row of the upper deck without hesitation. After catching three Ls vs. the Warriors in the regular season, this was his opportunity to perform an act so heinous, so derogatory, so disrespectful — that we would be talking about it for the rest of the season no matter where the two teams finished – and fortify his status as basketball’s Petty Jordan.
On one end of the spectrum you have the crowd who’s happy Durant and Russ finally called a truce and showed some affection for each other, albeit for just one play – cheering like Forrest Gump just got laid for the first time in his life and walked into the house at noon with Jenny’s hickeys all over his neck.
At the other end are the petty Westbrook fanatics, who were likely standing over their televisions screaming like Obi Wan’s “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE, YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO DESTROY [DURANT] – NOT JOIN HIM!” plea over Anakin Skywalker’s burnt corpse.
No matter which side you’re on, one thing is for certain: the pettiness and war of no words between Westbrook and Durant holds no value any more. This storyline is dead. One of the most fun intriguing off-the-court duels in NBA history is deceased and can never come back.
Westbrook certainly tried his best after the game to downplay the magnitude of the moment, telling reporters:
“Oh, that was a question? … He threw a lob and that’s all that happened. He just threw a lob. It’s basketball. That’s it.”
…but it’s all for not. Sure, Durant and Westbrook will compete hard against each other in the future and exchange heated moments – but if this notorious altercation ever happens again:
…we will know the fire in those eyes are just embers, not the raging inferno we’ve believed to have burned for so long. You absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, put on this façade of abhorrence for 7 months and be the first one to break rank.
Some of you are probably reading this and thinking “You’re making a big deal about nothing, they still don’t like each other…” and while I do agree with the latter part of this argument, what Westbrook represented between July 4th and Sunday night was the rebellion. It’s why he’s become arguably the most marketable basketball player on Earth. He took on not only the challenge of winning NBA basketball games without any other all-star on his team, but adapted the rogue mentality of Braveheart’s William Wallace.
Wallace, the vicious military leader responsible for spearheading Scotland’s independence from England, would have never broke bread with Longshanks, even if made King under his rule. It may not be why everyone loved him, but believing in this same sentiment about Westbrook is why I loved him.
The alley-oop heard around the world wasn’t just a harmless exhibition play that carries no weight when the games go back to actually mattering, it was proof that Westbrook’s armor can be cracked. Some may see this as a noble trait, some may not – but I’m not ashamed to admit that a part of me died on Sunday night, and one of the best things to ever happen to the NBA will never be the same.
(h/t @BennettBerry for the Braveheart artwork)