Following the departure of his superstar teammate, Russell Westbrook was left to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder all by himself. That’s when something special happened.
In Philadelphia, before the first game of the N.B.A. season, Russell Westbrook worked through his warm-up routine. He was loose and laughing but — as always — precise. Westbrook’s internal clock had driven him to be the first player out on the court, a full three hours before tipoff, and he was performing his routine in front of a largely empty arena. He started with chip-ins and free throws, easy stuff to get his body going, and then moved on to his signature shot: the pull-up jumper. Westbrook’s pull-up is one of modern basketball’s most recognizable weapons — if not yet quite on the level of Kareem’s skyhook or Jordan’s turnaround or Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway, then at least at the edge of that territory. The move is a surprise attack. Westbrook is unreasonably fast and aggressive, a flying, screaming whirlwind of ferocious highlight dunks, and he charges the hoop with so much raging menace that defenders have no choice but to scramble backward to try to stop him. That’s when he hits them with the pull-up: He stops instantly and — while the defender’s momentum continues to drag him backward — leaps perfectly straight into the air, like a fighter pilot ejecting from his cockpit to escape an explosion, except that Russell Westbrook is the explosion: He is the explosion and the control all at once. The whole thing seems to defy the laws of motion. Growing up in Los Angeles, Westbrook practiced this move so many tens of thousands of times on the playground that he and his father referred to it as “the cotton shot,” because they always expected it to go through the net.
Now, in Philadelphia, in front of the ushers and ball boys, Westbrook practiced his cotton shot. He backed up almost to half-court, squared his huge shoulders, dipped, charged, stopped, rose, fired — and missed. He backed up and tried again. Again he missed.
It was only warm-ups, but everything surrounding Westbrook in that moment seemed historic, and the misses struck me as a bad sign. I watched him shoot 11 times from the same spot and make only three. At one point, he missed five in a row. Russell Westbrook was cold. The cotton shot, at a very inconvenient moment, seemed to have turned to iron.
As season openers go, this game was unusually loaded with expectations. It was a sort of Independence Day: the first game of Westbrook’s professional career without Kevin Durant as his teammate. For eight seasons, Westbrook and Durant were one of the great inscrutable duos in all of sports, superstars with wildly opposing personalities and playing styles, overachieving together in Oklahoma City, one of the smallest markets in the N.B.A. Durant was basketball’s greatest prodigy since LeBron James, a mild-mannered, long-limbed scoring genius with a baby face and a golden jump shot. Westbrook was the scowling underdog on a never-ending mission to prove the entire universe wrong.
On the scale of creative tension, Westbrook-Durant fell somewhere between Lennon-McCartney and Goofus-Gallant. They clashed and blended, encouraged and diminished one another, in ways that were hard to parse. Durant led the league in scoring; Westbrook led the league in turnovers. Durant was the metronome; Westbrook the guitar solo. Durant was the scenic cliff; Westbrook the waterfall raging primally over the top of it. Occasionally, TV cameras would catch the two of them squabbling during a timeout, but they always appeared at the media table together afterward to insist that they were friends and brothers. Durant once called Westbrook his “hype man” — the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D. The whole relationship was a puzzle. Were they real friends, work friends, secret rivals, frenemies, secret real-world frenemies? On sports TV, Westbrook and Durant inspired as much talking-head bloviation as a celebrity affair.
The most surprising thing about the partnership, however, was how well it worked. Westbrook and Durant turned the Oklahoma City Thunder, against all odds, into one of the reigning powers in the N.B.A. In 2012, when both stars were still only 23 — an age at which most players are just beginning to find their footing — the Thunder made it all the way to the finals. In a six-year span, they reached the Western Conference finals four times. (It took major injuries to keep them out.) The only thing Durant and Westbrook never did together was win a championship. They came agonizingly close, including last season, when they held a 3-1 lead in the playoffs against the mighty Golden State Warriors. But they never could quite push over the top. Still, it seemed inevitable that their day would eventually come.
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