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Led by two superstars, the Thunder cruise past the Mavs in five games

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook is always angry on a basketball court. But about an hour and a half before Game 5, Mark Cuban actually gave him a reason to be.

Cuban plainly said Westbrook is a star, but not a superstar, pointing to his teammate Kevin Durant as the only superstar in Oklahoma City. If his plan was to unnerve Westbrook, to try and get him to play too hard, too motivated, too angry, well ... it didn't work.

As the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled by the Dallas Mavericks 118-104 to advance in five games, Westbrook piled up 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in 38 minutes. Whatever the definition of superstar is, Westbrook certainly appeared to fit it.

It started with 13 galvanizing points to open the first quarter and was punctuated with 10 more points and four assists in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder held off a last-ditch comeback effort by the Mavs. There was some curiosity over whether Westbrook actually had gotten wind of Cuban's comments, but judging by the reaction postgame, it would seem that they made their way to the Thunder locker room.

As Westbrook was asked about his reaction, he nodded along, chambering some likely verbal bullets. Instead, Durant reached his hand out over Westbrook's microphone.

"Hold up," he said. "[Cuban is] an idiot. He's an idiot. Don't listen to him. All right. That's what we've got to say about that. He's an idiot. Next question."

There's some thought that this was Cuban's way to begin an early recruitment of Durant, to compliment him as the true superstar of the team and plant the thought that he needs to get away from the swirling tornado that is Westbrook. But that was a big miscalculation by Cuban, because Durant dearly appreciates and loves Westbrook.

It's easy to see why. The two work in tandem, forging a chemistry through fire and frustration, growing from teenagers into two of the best players in the world. The assumption had been that their games couldn't work together, with Westbrook's straight-lining brute force pushing against Durant's rhythmic scoring, but that idea was put to bed years ago. Westbrook and Durant have grown and matured, discovering ways to not score in spite of the other, but in complement.

Westbrook specifically has evolved to become the league's best playmaker, a heat-seeking rim torpedo that is constantly dragging two and three defenders onto the ball. He's focused on shot creation, always with Durant in mind first, and letting that dictate his scoring, not vice versa, as in seasons past.

"I thought Westbrook played beautiful basketball this year," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "I don't think there were many people in the basketball world that thought he'd be able to turn his game into both a scoring and a distributing game. But he led the league in triple-doubles and that's a great credit to him."

As Carlisle noted next, some of that credit also should go to Billy Donovan, who tweaked the Thunder's offense to charge Westbrook with more of a playmaking mindset. His point guard responded, piling up assists in bunches.

Would it translate to the postseason, though? As games tightened, would Westbrook's grip on the offense do the same? There were hints of that concern in Game 2, as the Thunder faltered down the stretch, force-feeding the ball to Durant and relying on Westbrook to try to bail out possessions late in the clock.

The Mavs squeezed the game on Monday, cutting the Thunder's lead to three midway through the fourth. Westbrook responded by hitting two free throws, then knocking down back-to-back jumpers to re-establish the Thunder's lead.

"I didn't see it or hear," Donovan said of Cuban's comment on Westbrook, "but I'll tell you this: I'm really, really happy he's on my team. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."

As Dirk Nowitzki said, "I'd take him. I'd definitely take him."

The Mavs got their deficit down to four with three minutes left, and the Thunder came back with a putback by Andre Roberson, then a series of Durant jumpers to put it away for good. That other superstar had 33 points in the closeout.

It wasn't the best series for Durant, with plenty of aggravation and out-of-character shooting and outbursts -- including his flagrant 2 foul and ejection in Game 4 -- but Durant's omnipresence opened doors for the Thunder's offense, and his defensive versatility enabled them to lock the Mavs' offense.

It was a full display of the power of the two-headed superstar snake. Wave after wave, punch after punch, and the battered Mavs finally wilted. That's the bare bones of the Thunder formula, to overwhelm and suffocate with talent, and hope all the cracks fill in around it. In this series, Enes Kanter was destructive in Games 3 and 4 on the road. Dion Waiters was solid throughout. Steven Adams continued his breakout as a top-tier, two-way big.

As the next matchup looms, all of that will have to work again, and then some, for the Thunder. The Thunder appeared to coast a bit in Game 5, probably because of a wandering eye to this weekend, and who can blame them? Their next test is quite the jump in competition. Going from the Mavs to the San Antonio Spurs is like going from a 5K to an Ironman.

But what they take with them to San Antonio on Saturday is a team-building confidence in their system and a belief they're good enough to play with the Spurs. The Thunder have felt disrespected all season long, lost in the shadow cast by the Warriors and Spurs. Now they have their chance because they have their superstars.

Plural.