Who says you can't go home again?
Despite two convincing victories by Golden State at Oracle Arena earlier in the season, the third matchup between the Warriors and Thunder on Saturday night was still the most anticipated game of the season, as Kevin Durant returned to Oklahoma City for the first time since he chose to join the Warriors this offseason, forming a super team in Golden State and leaving Russell Westbrook behind.
In the lead up to the game, Durant downplayed any bitter feelings between himself and the Thunder organization, and in particular his fractured relationship with Westbrook, who did his best to echo those sentiments.
Russell Westbrook on what it's been like walking around OKC last couple of days, city's anticipation:- Erik Horne (@ErikHorneOK) February 11, 2017
"I don't know. I be at the house."
The game was reminiscent of LeBron James' return to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat in 2010 (a 118-90 Heat victory, with James scoring 38 points), and the crowd's vitriol towards Durant was evident during the player intros.
Thunder fans boo Warriors' Kevin Durant during player introductions pic.twitter.com/3BvcIMPzle- Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 12, 2017
The game itself lacked suspense. The Warriors raced out to a 23-point lead at halftime thanks to a 43-point second quarter. Durant finished with 34 points on 12-for-21 shooting. Westbrook shot 14-for-26 from the field and made 16-of-18 free throw attempts, finishing with 47 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and 11 turnovers in 37 minutes in a 130-114 loss.
However, the bad blood between the two sides spilled over onto the court, as a confrontation between Durant and Westbrook got the crowd riled up.
After three matchups these season (all Warriors victories), it's time to look at how the KD-Westbrook split has shaken out so far.
1. Kevin Durant
With the Thunder trailing by 18 late in the third quarter on Saturday, Durant and Westbrook -- who have barely acknowledged each other when the Warriors and Thunder have faced off -- finally jawed at each other on the court.
Russ to KD: "I'm coming." pic.twitter.com/K3bXR6Ou3Q- Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 12, 2017
The confrontation was brief, but confirmed the lingering bad feelings between the two superstars. Breakups in sports are hard. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant went back and forth (even when they were teammates and winning three championships together in Los Angeles!) after Shaq was traded to Miami. Kevin Garnett refused to acknowledge Ray Allen in interviews after he left the Celtics to join the Heat. Durant and Westbrook are no different, and Saturday we finally got the moment many were waiting on.
Westbrook yelling at Durant: "I'm coming"- Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 12, 2017
Durant shrugging it off, believe he said: "You're gonna lose"
The exchange encapsulates the rivalry: Westbrook is the defiant one-man show, averaging a triple-double, putting the Thunder team on his back and leading them to a playoff spot at the moment. But every matchup against Durant and the Warriors is a reminder that the Thunder are no longer a championship contender in the West, while Westbrook's former running mate is now on the consensus favorite to win the title this season.
After holding back all season, perhaps Durant finally decided he would get his two cents in on the court. With the Warriors at 46-8 and first place in the West, Durant's decision to join Golden State has been a success so far.
2. Mahogany Prime Steakhouse
No superstar rivalry would be complete without its own off-court subplot. A great one emerged this weekend as it was reported prior to Saturday's game that Durant's request to rent out Mahogany Prime Steakhouse -- a popular spot in Oklahoma City -- was denied by owner David Osborn.
This was one of the few ways for Oklahoma City to get a small win over Durant for him spurning the Thunder for the Warriors this past summer. And even so, Durant was spotted at Mahogany after Saturday's victory.
Kevin Durant is eating dinner at Mahogany after all. pic.twitter.com/c6zeZECEjd- Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 12, 2017
Mahogany is one of Westbrook's favorite hangouts, so chalk this up as another win for Durant. And I suppose we can put Mahogany in the win column as well for the prime publicity, although now we have to keep an eye on whether Westbrook will still be a regular at the steakhouse moving forward.
3. The Warriors finding their edge
One byproduct of this Warriors-Thunder rivalry is that Golden State has shown its bullish side. In the second meeting, Zaza Pachulia took down Westbrook with a hard screen and proceeded to stand over the Thunder guard. Draymond Green -- always comfortable in the agitator role -- has not shied away from getting involved with the testiness on the court. They might be inconsequential moments on their own, but the heightened edge from this rivalry might be something the Warriors can tap into against their opponents come playoff time.
4. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson
After a brief narrative during the start of the season about whether Durant and Steph Curry could co-exist, Curry has found his groove and is averaging 25.2 points, 6.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 42.0 percent from three. Klay Thompson, who famously said this summer that he wasn't sacrificing sh*t even with the addition of Durant, is averaging 21.8 points (compared to 22.1 points last season) and taking 17.4 shots per game (17.3 last season) including 7.9 three-point attempts each game (8.1 last season). Even with Durant's arrival, the Splash Brothers have continued to operate as one of the best backcourts in the NBA.
Plenty of Thunder fans brought signs and wore t-shirts to Saturday's game referring to Durant as a "cupcake." As the story goes, via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, on the day Durant announced he was signing with the Warriors, Westbrook posted a photo with cupcakes on Instagram, which former teammate Kendrick Perkins used to describe players who were soft. The taunting didn't really help, and Durant even threw shade back at the OKC crowd after the game.
Warriors' Kevin Durant on boos from Thunder fans: "I actually thought it would be a little louder (full post-game interview) pic.twitter.com/EWIKQMsS2N- Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 12, 2017
And two more parting shots:
KD said he doesn't think Westbrook's cupcake post was as shot at him: "I don't think anything you guys think was a shot at me was a shot."- Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 12, 2017
Kevin Durant on the Cup-Cake chants: "I've been called worse" pic.twitter.com/zq4vNOIOfj- Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 12, 2017
Hard to see a nickname sticking if it's directed to a player who has dominated all three matchups so far this season.
2. Russell Westbrook
There's no doubt Westbrook is having one of the greatest seasons for an individual player in NBA history. At the same time, knowing how competitive Westbrook is and how much he wants to succeed without Durant, it has to bother him that at every turn, he's had to answer questions about his former teammate, while losing against the Warriors each time.
During a scuffle between Durant and Andre Roberson on Saturday, Westbrook did step in and give Durant more than just playful shove to break up the altercation:
Warriors' Kevin Durant goes head-to-head with Thunder's Andre Roberson (full sequence) pic.twitter.com/W0wFez5eh1- Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 12, 2017
But afterward, Russ continued to brush off any attempts to play up the rivalry between himself and Durant:
Plain and simple pic.twitter.com/2RHGwT32to- NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 12, 2017
Up next is All-Star Weekend, where Westbrook will be teammates with Durant and three other Warriors players (Curry, Thompson and Green) on the Western Conference All-Star team. Would Kerr dare to put the four Warriors and Westbrook out there as a five-man lineup for the game?
3. Sam Presti
It's hard to watch Durant, Westbrook and James Harden (you can add Serge Ibaka in Orlando as well) on separate teams and not think about how this Thunder era will be remembered in 20 years as the "what if" team of this generation. Presti probably traded Harden earlier than he should have, but it was also a proactive move in anticipation of avoiding a salary cap crunch. Durant's departure was also aided by the spike in the salary cap this past offseason that gave the Thunder very little leverage financially to incentivize Durant to stay. So, some bad luck, some poor decisions with the roster construction, but overall, watching Durant and Westbrook battle each other is a stark reminder of what could have been.
4. The rest of the NBA
The Warriors have dominated the Thunder in all three meetings, and those three games have also been indicative of what they've been doing all season. Per NBA.com, the Warriors lead the league in net rating, outscoring teams by 12.9 points per 100 possessions. They've beat up on teams, and often it has not been close. Whether parity is good for the league is up for debate, and truthfully the NBA has always been top heavy. Durant and Curry could both become free agents this summer, but assuming both stay in Golden State (and they both have plenty of reason to), it's hard to envision the Warriors not being clear favorites to win the title this year and beyond.
As we learned last season, anything can happen in the playoffs, but the dominance of the Warriors does put a bit of a damper on the regular season in that everyone is just anticipating another Golden State-Cleveland showdown in the Finals.
In the meantime, there will be one more KD vs. Westbrook date before the playoffs on March 20. Save the date.