Anyone who has ever played pickup basketball has felt a little like Russell Westbrook felt Saturday night.
You show up to a familiar court with a buddy who’s pretty good. You’re used to being on the same team. But sides get chosen — maybe by shooting free throws, maybe just random assignment — and you’re on different teams. And it doesn’t take long to figure out that your friend’s team is much, much better than yours.
If you have a little (or a lot) of alpha dog in you, maybe you start trying to do too much. When that inevitably doesn’t work, your frustration begins to show in obvious ways. You gripe about every foul. You talk trash when it’s not appropriate.
It’s not fun on a random Saturday with nothing more than pride at stake at a local court. It looked like a barrel of not fun Saturday in Oklahoma City, when Kevin Durant returned for the first time since leaving Westbrook and the Thunder to join the greatest team (regular-season edition, of course) in NBA history.
Predictably, the Warriors carved up the Thunder with their usual dizzying array of three-pointers and easy layups. The final score was 130-114; Durant had 34 points in 33 minutes.
And Westbrook? Well, maybe we shouldn’t exactly feel sorry for the guy. But it’s hard not to feel something.
Part of him wants this, sure. This is Westbrook’s show now in Oklahoma City, and he’s free to pursue all the triple-doubles a boxscore can handle. He can put up absurd stat lines like 47 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists (and 11 turnovers) as he did Saturday in a classic “Russ against the world” performance.
He can do this, more often than not, in victories. The Thunder is 31-24 this season, after all. But he also plays with such a conviction and belief in his own abilities as to think all of the grinding and hero ball should lead to a perfect record — or at least one that’s better than Durant’s Warriors.
That’s absurd, but that’s Westbrook. It seems like it’s killing him — not softly nor slowly.
This is not to begrudge Durant for his decision to sign with the Warriors. There are probably quite a few 28-year-olds who, if given the choice between struggling uphill in a midmarket franchise or joining a potential dynasty in progress out in the Bay Area, would do the same thing.
But it is a shame that had to come at the expense of breaking up the Durant/Westbrook duo — an uneasy but fascinating alliance for so many wonderful years.
And it’s a shame that it had to come at the expense of the rest of the NBA, really. Barring injuries, nobody is touching the Warriors this season — and perhaps for many more to come. LeBron James probably knows this, which is part of the reason he’s been particularly frustrated this season with the Cavaliers’ roster.
At least LeBron got Cleveland a ring last year, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to defeat Golden State — after the Warriors had done the same to Durant and Westbrook’s Thunder.
Now Westbrook is the guy at the playground who just lost his best teammate to the other team.
His pride tells him he doesn’t need any help. The results tell the truth.