(If you missed it, watch the highlights above immediately. Spoiler alert: Russell Westbrook hits a 40-foot running 3 to force the first overtime.)
It made the Thunder 2-0 — still on pace to go 82-0 in Billy Donovan’s first season — and while there was a clear pronouncement that Westbrook and Kevin Durant are back to being the NBA’s most dynamic duo (91 points combined) despite the incredible win, there were some old nagging issues still tugging. Here are three key takeaways:
1. “Sometimes you’ve got to let your big dogs be big dogs.” That’s what Durant told reporters following the game. Westbrook and Durant are the only duo since two guys named Jordan and Pippen in 1996 to score at least 40 each in a game, per Elias. Here’s the kicker: That’s the third time Westbrook and Durant have done it.
They played only 27 times together last season because of Durant’s injury, and only two games in, the reminder has been sent. When these guys are together on the floor, they are something else. For all the talk of a new coach, a new system, a new look, sometimes you can reduce it all much simpler in that Westbrook and Durant are the system.
Westbrook was especially outrageous, coming alive after just nine points on 2-of-11 shooting in the first half to finish with 48 on 17-of-36. Plus 11 rebounds and eight assists, because why not? Westbrook was the engine that sparked a 42-24 fourth quarter for the Thunder to overcome an 18-point deficit, and then scored all nine of the Thunder’s points in the first overtime.
And before Westbrook hit his wild near-halfcourter, Durant splashed from straightaway 3 to tie the score at 114-114 with nine seconds left. He hit two dagger jumpers in overtime to finish with 43 on 15-of-30 shooting, plus 12 rebounds. It was vintage, classic Thunder. Move out of the way, and let the big dogs get it done.
2. Top heavy: All that said, for all the necessary descriptors about Westbrook and Durant, their heroics flashed back to a time they’re trying to grow out of. Obviously the transformation under Donovan isn’t going to happen overnight, but in the past, the Thunder have often gotten by on the talents of their super duo, masking deeper structural problems within the team.
Of Westbrook and Durant’s combined 91 points, 62 came after halftime. The Thunder as a team scored 86 total points after the break. This is the old Thunder give-and-take. On one hand, you’ve got to ride your stars. On the other, the Thunder want to be more inclusive and not have to lean on these kind of superhuman performances to win, especially in October.
Not to say they didn’t make some effort at it. Durant swung the ball once in overtime to Dion Waiters and called for the team to clear out so Waiters could go one-on-one (Waiters missed a jumper). Westbrook set up D.J. Augustin for a would-be wide-open dagger from the right corner in the first overtime, but Augustin missed. It’s just in the end, the Thunder won because their two awesome players were very awesome. Which is how they’ve risen to being one of the league’s powerhouse contenders the past five years, but they also want to be better than that.
“Is that sustainable?,” Donovan said to reporters postgame. “It’s going to be hard for Kevin and Russell to do that night in and night out. I think we can get into a situation where we really are getting contributions on any given night from different guys. They may have some off nights and we need someone else to step up and play well, too.”
Key note: It’s not even November yet, so the Thunder have plenty of time with this work in progress. And it’s always easier to trust and believe in that process when you’re winning.
3. Donovan works the lineups: The Thunder’s comeback lineup was an unexpected one: Westbrook, Augustin, Waiters, Durant and Enes Kanter. Smallball with Durant at the 4, alongside Kanter, who is the Thunder’s weakest defensive big. It obviously worked, with the Thunder overcoming an 18-point deficit. Kanter was surprisingly adequate defensively, even coming up with a key block on Nikola Vucevic, who was torching Thunder bigs all night.
Kanter fouled out late in the fourth and Donovan rotated between Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams to finish out the game, but his preference in this one was clearly Durant at power forward with one big alongside. The more interesting wrinkle was leaning on dueling point guards with Augustin and Westbrook, plus Waiters over the sharpshooting Anthony Morrow.
Now, this is just Game 2 and Donovan was only playing the matchup against the Orlando Magic‘s speedy, athletic guards. But it does go to show the Thunder’s new coach already isn’t rigidly locking into a set rotation. He flexed down the stretch, even sitting Ibaka for basically the whole fourth, to find a combination that worked.