PHOENIX — Russell Westbrook sprinted to steal the ball from Kevin Durant, sending Durant flying to the ground on his bottom.
Durant winced in ache for a number of moments earlier than heading to the free-throw line at Phoenix’s Footprint Center as hundreds of Suns followers in orange T-shirts held their breath. Westbrook shortly walked away from the scene, seemingly unconcerned, and waited for Durant to start out taking pictures.
The sequence performed out like two ardent foes battling in an elimination recreation — which, technically, it was. Westbrook’s Clippers had been on their final probability to remain alive within the first-round playoff sequence. But it was additionally a matchup between two males who had spent practically a decade collectively as teammates, making the NBA finals in 2012 with Oklahoma City as fledgling 23-year-olds tasked with carrying a brand new franchise in a small metropolis.
“You know Russ is a fierce competitor, so when he sees Okay, it is all the time about making an attempt to play tremendous arduous,” stated Suns guard Cameron Payne, who performed with Westbrook and Durant on the Thunder.
Payne added: “Maybe within the common season, he’ll go assist him up, however you by no means know with Russ. Like taking part in with him in OKC, he was huge on the way it’s 15 guys on a workforce, and I’m with my 15 guys, in order that’s simply that competing stuff I used to be speaking about.”
It was one other puzzling second in a jagged relationship.
Durant’s Suns gained the decisive Game 5 on Tuesday, 136-130, holding off a late comeback try from the Clippers and advancing to the second spherical. Phoenix will play the top-seeded Denver Nuggets within the Western Conference semifinals starting Saturday. Suns guard Devin Booker led all scorers with 47 factors; Durant added 31, and Westbrook had 14.
Eleven years in the past, Durant and Westbrook led Oklahoma City previous playoff groups fronted by future Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan and headed into an NBA finals matchup with LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The Heat beat the Thunder simply in 5 video games, with Miami’s expertise and star energy proving an excessive amount of for the upstart Thunder.
As swift because the loss was, it appeared to point that Durant and Westbrook could be again and would win championships collectively; they appeared too proficient to not.
But they did not. Durant and Westbrook picked up particular person accolades: Each has gained a Most Valuable Player Award and many All-NBA honors, however they by no means bought to a different finals collectively. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016 after the Thunder blew a three-games-to-one lead within the Western Conference finals in opposition to Golden State.
In their second matchup in opposition to one another after Durant’s departure, Westbrook yelled at his teammates and instructed them to not speak to Durant. They prevented questions on one another. Even former teammates like James Harden, who performed with them in Oklahoma City, stated they had been “grown males” who needed to “determine it out themselves.”
Since then, every has been on a number of groups. Durant gained two championships with the Warriors and then headed to the Nets and now Phoenix. Westbrook has performed on a number of groups that had been imagined to have been title contenders — Rockets, Lakers, Clippers — however none has panned out. As Durant thrived, Westbrook started to be seen as previous his prime, not the participant who might will groups to wins and common triple-doubles, and he has turn out to be the butt of jokes from followers when he struggles.
But on this playoff sequence in opposition to the Suns, Westbrook proved he might nonetheless be a distinction maker. Westbrook signed with the Clippers in February as a free agent after the Lakers had traded him to Utah, the place he was launched to, at greatest, be the third choice for the Clippers behind the celebs Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. But accidents to George and Leonard made Westbrook the primary scoring choice in opposition to the Suns, and he usually served because the workforce’s greatest rebounder and defender.
He completed the sequence averaging 23.6 factors, 7.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists per recreation, wanting like a model of his outdated self, and he had the game-sealing block on Booker within the Clippers’ Game 1 win.
“When he is retired, persons are going to actually inform the reality about how they really feel about his recreation,” Durant stated after Game 4, when Westbrook had 37 factors. “Right now, the enjoyable factor to do is to make a joke out of Russ. But the way in which he is been taking part in since he bought with the Clippers is exhibiting all people who he actually is.”
After Game 5, Westbrook mirrored on Durant’s feedback, with an introspective reply that sounded as if it might additionally function a pitch to groups to signal him this summer time.
“I simply suppose that I’m a participant that makes errors like anyone else,” Westbrook stated. “I miss photographs like anyone else. I flip the ball over like anyone else. But I additionally do loads of issues that lots of people cannot do, and I’ve carried out loads of issues individuals have not carried out on this league.”
For Durant, this sequence, and these playoffs, have a unique that means in some basketball followers’ eyes: proving that he can win a title with out Golden State’s Stephen Curry and as a workforce’s greatest participant. Durant, nonetheless, has stated that he would not really feel that stress as a result of he has “nothing to show.”
The Boston Celtics embarrassed Durant and the Nets final season within the first spherical of the playoffs, sweeping them with out a lot hassle. Boston’s star ahead Jayson Tatum outplayed Durant, scoring loads whereas additionally defending Durant.
And then, within the NBA finals, Curry and the Warriors beat that Boston workforce that had simply conquered Durant’s earlier within the postseason.
In Tuesday’s win, Durant disappeared for a lot of the fourth quarter, going scoreless for practically 10 minutes as Booker dominated the ball and the Clippers inched nearer. As the postseason continues, how the Suns win — with Durant main the way in which or with Booker, or another person — will add fodder to the dialogue about Durant’s place as the most effective gamers ever.
That was clear on Tuesday, as Suns Coach Monty Williams made certain to acknowledge in his postgame information convention. But Williams additionally stated that he was at fault for Durant’s lack of touches on the finish of the sport.
“I’ve bought to determine methods to get him in area so he can catch the ball freely and have the ability to go,” Williams stated.
As the sport ended, Westbrook had many lengthy embraces with Suns gamers and coaches on the court docket, however he by no means made it to Durant. Instead, Westbrook left the ground alone, with one hand raised to followers as he exited, whereas Durant did a tv interview on the opposite finish of the court docket.