Here's the deal: wins and losses come and go. There will come a time when the Thunder beat the Warriors again, though it might not be for a long, long time. There will be a time when Russell Westbrook comes out on top, when he's not the one pushing the boulder up the hill like a basketball Sisyphus. Roster change, people change, games change, everything changes.
Instead, you learn a lot about players from little moments. How they respond to adversity. What moments bring out the best in them. What drives them, how they operate.
We learned a great deal about Russell Westbrook in the third quarter Saturday night during Golden State's 130-114 victory in Oklahoma City. It's not often a blowout gives you anything real to take away from it, but Saturday was different, of course, given the drama of Durant's first return to OKC. He was booed, as you would expect. The Thunder came out with a lot of energy, as you would expect. And the Warriors blew the game open and largely cruised to a victory, as you would expect.
But that third quarter provided a moment that showed something about both men, and none of it bad.
Westbrook: "I'm coming!"— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) February 12, 2017
Durant: "So what."
I'm a lip reader on the side
It's easy to take this little moment and forget about it. Just some trash talk between the two former teammates. But it says a lot. Here's Westbrook, down 18 points at home to the Warriors who have smoked his team now three times, and he goes into the timeout yelling "I'm coming." Westbrook had 20 points and four assists in that third quarter on his way to 47 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and 11 turnovers. He played like a man out of his mind, complete with the constant stream of reckless turnovers.
But he kept coming. No matter the deficit, no matter how many treys his teammates missed (18), or how many shots Durant knocked down (12 makes on his way to 34 points), Westbrook was relentless. This is his city, and he will keep coming with these teammates on this squad even if he loses every time out.
If you ask an NBA coach what makes Westbrook good, several of them have told me it's not his athleticism, which is nuclear, or his skill, which is incredible. It's how hard he plays. He goes out, every single time, with everything he has. Good, bad, whatever, Westbrook brings the full arsenal every game. That's what has made him an MVP candidate this season. But just as easy as it is to admire Westbrook's persistence and how he keeps dragging OKC forward, it's just as easy to see that this is a doomed effort. Oklahoma City does not have the horses, in Year Zero Post-Durant, to make a real run. The offense just isn't there.
Andre Roberson is worthy of Second Team All-Defensive honors, but can't hit shots effectively enough. Victor Oladipo isn't ready to take over stretches in big time games yet. Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis aren't there yet. Steven Adams is not a go-to weapon. The Thunder have time to find the weapons they need, but this team doesn't have it. We can recognize that, and still take note that Westbrook will not stop, that he is always coming for his opponent, come hell, high water, or cupcakes.
Then there's Durant. Durant's response was also perfectly symbolic of him. "So what?" Which is to say "Scoreboard." "We're winning."
Durant's all about winning. That's not to say that Westbrook isn't. But for Durant, being booed, taking the easier path with the Warriors, coasting to a title, none of it matters because they are winning. He's rolling over the league, and that's what really matters to Durant. Durant has rejected the idea of the "alpha" mentality even as he has exalted Kobe Bryant, the ultimate alpha dog. Durant was the best player on the floor Saturday night, as he is most every night, and yet his game never comes with the same ferocity of Westbrook or the unbridled joy of Steph Curry or the ruthless viciousness of Draymond Green, nor the unstoppable superiority of LeBron James, the man he's most often measuring himself against.
When Durant left Oklahoma City high and dry last summer, one thing that stuck out was that he said he "wanted to be a part of something special." He didn't want to take over the Warriors, he wanted to join them. He has, and they've embraced them, and he has embraced them, and they're incredible. Now 46-8. It's unlikely (but not impossible) that they'll reach last years' 73-9 mark, but even if not, who cares? Kevin Durant is the best player on the best team in the league, no matter how that happened.
Sure, he's backed up by a team that strictly speaking doesn't "need" him to beat anyone, but so what? Sure, he's not going to win MVP again because too many will look at the loaded roster he's on, but so what? Sure, a legion of fans in Oklahoma City have hostility toward him and will never embrace him the same way again. But so what?
Sure, his old friend and teammate that he went through so much together with now spits trash talk at him from across the court.
In the end, those elements defined Saturday. Russell Westbrook is a force in this league no matter what the scoreboard says, and he is always coming for the opponent. And Kevin Durant is winning, on his way to what is very likely his first NBA title, and everything else, his past, Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook, the eight years spent in that city and in the community he said he loved so much, none of it matters.
Well, until the next time he visits, at least.