NEW ORLEANS -- Some 45 minutes before showtime, 11 Western Conference All-Stars warmed up on one end of the floor, while Russell Westbrook stood alone on the other side, shooting free throws.
Westbrook has always despised crowds, deliberately standing in place to wait for media to move out of the way in scrums, or going out of his way to avoid any congestion with fans. He always shoots on his own basket -- the same one, by himself -- after practices and shootarounds at the Oklahoma City Thunder's practice facility.
But with so much focus and attention on how Westbrook interacted with Kevin Durant as they reunited as teammates Sunday, it was a striking image. Eventually, a different former teammate, James Harden, joined Westbrook, and the two, who have spent most of the weekend together, warmed up, laughing, joking and gesturing throughout.
The pregame scene was just another in a weekend full of them showcasing the tension between Westbrook and Durant. At the Saturday "practice" -- loose quotes at that -- as the Western All-Stars were announced, they gathered at midcourt, each player running through the line dapping each other up. Durant was the second player out, behind Stephen Curry, and as Westbrook had his name called a few players after, Durant was sitting back on a table by himself as Westbrook ran out. The feeling in the practice locker room was described as "painfully quiet and uncomfortable." In the subsequent mixed-zone media availability, Durant walked by Westbrook as the two appeared to strain so as not to make eye contact.
It all set up the game itself, where questions of whether Westbrook would even pass to Durant were legitimate. As Westbrook made his way to check in about midway through the opening quarter, the building buzzed. It took only about a minute before Westbrook gave Durant the eyes.
Durant made a cut across the lane, Westbrook fired a pass his way, cut behind it and Durant lobbed it up for a Westbrook dunk. "He was open, so I threw him the lob," Durant told sideline reporter David Aldridge at the half. A timeout was called shortly after, and as the two made their way to the bench, led by DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green, a mock cheer broke out. Someone threw water on Durant. It was clear: The ice appeared to have been broken. The awkwardness was real and felt by everyone around All-Star Weekend, nobody more so than the players.
It was jarring to watch Westbrook and Durant actively avoid each other, because it was a far cry from the way it used to be at All-Star Weekend. They've spent five together as teammates -- both for the Western Conference and the Thunder -- and while the weekend's proceedings kept them separate for large amounts as they tended to sponsorship appearances and charity events, when they had the opportunity to, they were together.
Durant and Westbrook made it a point to ride the same bus to every event they were both going to, always sitting next to each other. They would go out of the way to make sure they rode together to Sunday's big game, with Durant driving 25 minutes in Toronto traffic to meet up with Westbrook at the Jordan Brand hotel last year. That happened in New York the year before, and in Houston in 2013 (Westbrook missed 2014 due to injury), they met in the middle.
They took pictures together in the locker room, like they did with Kobe Bryant last year at his final All-Star Game, a photo both cherished. They would dance with each other before, during and after the game. Their lockers were always side by side, just like in Oklahoma City. This year, special requests were made to make sure their lockers were apart. The league accommodated, placing their lockers on opposite sides.
At Friday's availability, Westbrook and Durant's tables were positioned directly across the room from each other. But before he went to his table, Durant joined SportsCenter for an interview on a stage with Sage Steele, Westbrook's seat just a few feet to his left. When Durant finished, he stepped off the stage and Steele noted that Westbrook should be right there. Durant looked over the gathered media scrum to see if Westbrook was there yet. Westbrook wasn't, some 30 minutes late for his availability.
Eventually Westbrook showed up and quickly the questions were pointed in the direction of Durant. Westbrook's strategy became obvious rather quickly, flipping each question into something about fashion. It wasn't disrespectful or rude, as Westbrook's media interactions sometimes can be, but instead disarming and lighthearted. Westbrook was clearly trying to make it a point that he's done talking about it. ESPN's Ramona Shelburne tried to press him, and eventually Westbrook cracked, sort of.
"I don't know what y'all's problem," Westbrook said of why people are so fixated on it. Asked if he or the team has moved on, he said, "What it look like?"
"I don't know what y'all need, but I'm in a great place. I'm happy, I'm having fun, I'm having a great time," he said. "I'm happy with my team I have now and looking forward to moving forward."
The messaging from both sides is this is more of a media obsession than an actual feud. They're right in this sense: There's no actual grudge per se; there's just no longer a relationship. And considering the eight seasons they spent together, the ups, the downs, the things they said, the things they did, beef or no beef, there's too much history to ignore. Durant called Westbrook his favorite teammate ever at the ESPYS in 2014. Durant selected Westbrook to induct him into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2015. Westbrook and Durant both repeatedly referred to the other as a "brother." The list goes on. And on.
"There's times we cuss each other out, but that's a part of being brothers," Durant told The Oklahoman in 2015. "Because I know if I need something, he'll be there, and if I need to talk to someone outside of basketball, he'll be there. It's a real brotherhood type relationship. We're like family."
Some have seen the Durant-Westbrook breakup and ensuing fallout as validation they were never actually that close. Besides, Durant called them "work friends" in a Rolling Stone profile back in October. In reality, the current tension is evidence the relationship had real depth, and meaning. There was true mutual admiration between the two, and an immense amount of respect.
They had their rough patches, though, like in 2010 as the "can they coexist" narrative was being born, Durant told friends he wanted to meet with Presti to talk about his future playing with Westbrook. (Durant changed his mind; the meeting never happened.) Or in 2014 when Durant was building an impressive MVP case with Westbrook sidelined following knee surgery -- the "Slim Reaper era," if you recall. Westbrook returned, and under a minutes restriction, didn't play well as the Thunder lost three straight, including a humiliating 22-point home loss to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Durant, who desperately wanted to win MVP, especially over LeBron, worried his award was slipping. He was agitated, openly wondering if Westbrook was getting in the way. He got over it, the Thunder started winning again, and Durant won MVP, saving Westbrook for last in his infamous speech.
"I could speak all night about Russell," Durant said. "An emotional guy that would run through the wall for me. I don't take it for granted. ... I love you, man. I love you."
Their relationship has always been about ups and downs. The lob brought them back together, if only for a brief moment, and while the players on the bench celebrated, Durant and Westbrook stood on opposite sides of the huddle. They didn't interact outside of a couple low-fives when one would sub out. During timeouts Durant would stand on one side with Green, Westbrook on the other side with Harden.
They played a total of 82 seconds together.
A lot of people kept asking the question throughout the weekend: What, exactly, is the big problem here?
There are a lot of layers to that answer.
The first is obviously the shared history and the things said, but rewind to the dinner in Los Angeles at BOA Steakhouse a week before Durant's free agency in which Westbrook sat with Durant, along with Nick Collison and Royal Ivey. He was open and candid, things that don't come easy to him, asking what he could do differently, how he could change, what he would need to do for Durant to stay.
Durant didn't only leave, but he left for that team, the one that had just eliminated the Thunder by overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals. The one with Westbrook's antithesis, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green who karate kicked Steven Adams twice in the groin. Like so many within the Thunder organization, there was confusion.
Then there's the fact that by leaving, Durant also stole Westbrook's shot, at least for the foreseeable future. The Thunder are no longer title contenders. Westbrook is obsessed with winning a championship -- on his terms, of course -- and Durant took that from him.
The subtle media jabs from Durant's camp didn't go unnoticed, such as blaming Westbrook's style of play for not meshing, or not having enough fun. There hasn't been a single subversive leak from Westbrook or his people, but there was the cupcakes Instagram post and the photographer's outfit worn to the first matchup. Like everything else in this situation, it's not entirely one-sided.
Time heals all wounds, but the wound is still fresh and was reopened only two weeks ago in OKC. Durant claimed he might talk to Westbrook over the weekend if it happened "organically," and Westbrook has never said he was opposed to it, saying when he signed his extension that "eventually" they'll talk. There's too much equity there to believe it won't ever happen. How and why are the bigger questions. Maybe it's at USA Basketball, where Gregg Popovich will take over -- a person both players immensely respect -- and a close-quarters team environment that can't support tension. Maybe this weekend helped thaw the ice some.
The "how" from Westbrook's viewpoint was summarized the morning of Durant's return game to Oklahoma City. Asked about a future reconciliation, he said, "It's not really up to me, honestly." It's that simple. Westbrook is the one that got dumped. He got left. He's the one who got only a brief text shortly after Durant's decision was announced on The Players' Tribune. He's a fiercely loyal person, keeping his circle of trust small and tight. He has spent his weekend unbothered, hanging and chatting with a number of players -- Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, among others -- because he sees himself as the bystander.
Some in Durant's circle have tried to mediate, such as at Mahogany where someone went to Westbrook's private room to let him know Durant was there. (They didn't talk.) If the relationship is ever going to be restored, Durant is going to have to be the one to personally extend the olive branch, because he's the one that broke it in the first place.
At least, that's how Westbrook sees it. And Durant doesn't seem ready to do that.