Kevin Durant returned once again to Oklahoma City Wednesday night. You might not have realized it, since the NBA stashed it away the night before Thanksgiving.
It was a weird scheduling choice; typically dramatic return games between two of the league’s most star-studded rosters would get a more noteworthy slot on the schedule. (Maybe the NBA thinks people are already relaxing with family and friends on Wednesday evening, as opposed to either scrambling like mad to travel or scrambling like made while preparing to host travelers?)
If you didn’t watch it, though, you missed out on a sound and thorough ass-beating, as Oklahoma City essentially bullied Golden State out of the gym en route to a 108-91 win that wasn’t really that close. (It was a 23 point game heading into the fourth quarter.)
Russell Westbrook was astoundingly good, scoring 34 points in 37 minutes, adding 10 rebounds and 9 assists. Oh, and four steals as well. Here’s one that led to Westbrook and Durant getting into a head-to-head confrontation:
And here was Westbrook a bit earlier, popping up to steal a Steph Curry pass like an 8th-grader scrimmaging against a 7th-grade B-teamer:
Oh, and here he is throwing down so hard it makes you think the rim once turned him down for prom (which is kind of what Durant did, to be honest):
No Words. pic.twitter.com/o4SeOOJidA
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 23, 2017
But for one of the first times since Durant left, it was more than just Russell. Paul George had 20 points, 11 boards, and 4 steals. Melo had 22. Those three guys (plus Steven Adams, the rapidly dwindling commodity that is a useful NBA center) can be incredibly good, and they were last night. OKC is only 8-9 on the year, but growing pains were always going to happen. (Especially once Melo came on board, but the ceiling is in theory worth it.)
The Warriors, meanwhile, are as ho-hum a 13-5 team as has ever existed. (I have not crosschecked.) They’re obviously very good, even though Curry is sitting below 40% from deep, a trend that’s either worrying or a sign of positive regression to come, we don’t yet know. Their expected Eastern Conference counterparts in Cleveland, meanwhile, are just 11-7, and while LeBron is awesome in the literal sense, we have no idea what they’ll look like in the spring. (Pro: they should have Isaiah Thomas. Con: it’s an old-ass team that can’t guard anyone at all right now.)
Heading into this offseason, the conversation around the league was similar to what it had been for at least two offseasons, and especially post-Durant-to-Golden State: teams shouldn’t bother trying. And on a surface level, that made some sense; why sacrifice long-term assets for short-term gains that, on paper, seem pointless? The Warriors won a title, then won 73 games, then added one of the best players in the league and won another title. They didn’t lose anyone. LeBron’s been to seven straight NBA Finals (it gets mentioned a lot and it’s still underrated) and the Eastern Conference has been and was supposed to be bad.
Why would teams gear up to tilt at these two particular windmills? Much better to hold off a year or two, wait out LeBron’s potential decline or move to a different team, while hoping the Warriors price themselves out of their core.
The problem with that, though, is that it’s not really how sports works. Shit happens! The margins aren’t so great that a really good team couldn’t beat the Warriors in a playoff series. Kyrie Irving demanded and got a trade out of nowhere, to the Celtics, of all places, the team that actually finished ahead of Cleveland in the regular season standings last year. They just went on a 16-game winning streak (broken by the Heat last night) despite serving as another example of shit happening when Gordon Hayward went down on opening night.
Things can flip suddenly. If you look at the Cavs, with LeBron and Isaiah Thomas set to be free agents, vs the Celtics, set to bring back their superstar in Irving plus their core players while adding a healthy Gordon Hayward and still hoarding a silly amount of draft assets, you’d be dumb to think the Cavs are more likely to be the better team over the next few seasons. And it’s close enough this year that it absolutely made sense to take a run at things.
The rest of the East is also much better than advertised, with teams like the Wizards and Raptors just a slight tier down, ahead of a group of teams like the Pacers. (Who were supposed to be absolutely dreadful, and instead are actually a ton of fun, and decent!)
And, we haven’t even gotten to the Houston Rockets, who went all in on a Chris Paul/James Harden combo this summer only to see CP3 miss the first chunk of the regular season with a knee injury. They stomped Denver last night, 125-95, in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. Houston scored 75 in the first half, despite missing the very effective Eric Gordon. Paul had 23 points on 11 shots, adding 12 assists. Harden had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists. (Also seven turnovers, but hey, it’s the fun and gun D’Antoni system.)
Houston, if healthy, is absurdly good, and while Golden State certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt, Houston clearly didn’t view them as invincible. Golden State’s team-building and dominance didn’t push teams to lay low; rather, it pushed teams to adapt to compete. And that makes sense!
If you’re Houston, are you really not going to try to win while you have one of the five best players in the sport in his prime? Of course not! That’s negligence. Same for Oklahoma City, and close to the same for Boston, though their strength was going to be their balance and two stars. (Kyrie playing out of his mind so far means they’re close to that echelon, though.) If you have players that good, you take your shots, because you never know what will happen, and you never know when a team like Golden State or a player like LeBron just might not have it in the playoffs.