OKLAHOMA CITY -- The buzzer had sounded in Game 5, and for the first time in their brief Oklahoma City history, the Oklahoma City Thunder had won a playoff series, advancing past the Denver Nuggets in 2011.
Kevin Durant, who had dropped 41 points, including 14 in the final five minutes, stalked along the baseline, right in front of where owners Clay Bennett and Aubrey McLendon sat. With his teammates hanging on his shoulders, Durant popped his jersey and bellowed, "This is my motherf---ing team!"
Without question Thunder have been Durant's, despite plenty of conspiracy and assumption that Russell Westbrook has been not-so-subtly attempting a coup. All of that noise has always been unfounded and unfair as Westbrook is simply an overwhelming, enigmatic talent that sometimes bursts at the seams. Still, Durant is the face of the franchise, the alpha dog, the top man. Westbrook isn't necessarily the Robin to his Batman, but in terms of defining metaphoric ownership, the Thunder are no doubt Durant's.
But not for at least the next six to eight weeks. Because of a stress fracture in Durant's right foot, the reigning league MVP will be sidelined for the first 20 or so games of the season, meaning Westbrook will finally get to play the role so many have assumed he's always so desperately wanted. He's the captain now.
As Thunder general manager Sam Presti said on Sunday, the Thunder can't replace Durant. The Thunder scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor last season and 101.7 per 100 with him sitting. You don't just pick up the slack of a guy who averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. It has to be a collective effort, with the group combining to cobble together the production they're going to be missing. That begins with Westbrook, who many have seen as a potential MVP-caliber player if only he wasn't ceding to Durant.
Westbrook had a front-row seat last season watching Durant pick up his team during his extended absence stemming from complications in recovery from a 2013 meniscus tear in the playoffs. Westbrook missed 36 games, and from January to the All-Star break, Durant unleashed a fury on the league unlike many we've ever seen before. The Thunder went 20-7 as Durant averaged 35 points and 6.3 assists. In a stretch from Jan. 7-27, Durant topped 30 points in 12 consecutive games, averaging 38.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists. The run was so outrageous it even spawned it's own awesome nickname -- "The Slim Reaper."
Durant played completely unfettered, finding that offensive voice so many have known he was capable of. Without Westbrook using possessions -- Durant's usage rate spiked from 29.5 to 35.3 -- Durant was able to entirely commandeer the offense. It wasn't so much that he played significantly better than he had been, he just saw more of the offense. It led to the seemingly previously resolved question of whether the Thunder were better off without Westbrook, which was and still is, definitively, no. Durant, individually, though? He probably is better, at least statistically, as a solo act.
Now it's Westbrook's turn. The Thunder's experience with Westbrook running the show solo is limited, so it's hard to get any kind of feel as to how they'll look. Thunder coach Scott Brooks rarely staggered his star duo's playing time last season as Westbrook spent only 41 minutes on the floor without Durant. In those 41 minutes Westbrook attempted 35 shots and scored 46 points, posting a volcanic usage rate of 47.5 percent. Without Durant on the floor, Westbrook took 45.5 percent of the team's shots and scored 41.8 percent of their points. Does Westbrook adjust, or does he just embrace the role and try to go full supernova every night? It's kind of an amazing thing when a team loses the MVP and somehow becomes more interesting.
The Thunder have spent the offseason remodeling their offense so that it doesn't rely as heavily on Durant and Westbrook for production. The Thunder are attempting to add more space and movement to the offense, which in theory will create better passing and balance. Thunder general manager Sam Presti envisions Durant returning to a better, more refined team.
"I think we also have to recognize the opportunity here is to build a better brand of basketball so that when he comes back, he's a part of that. We have an opportunity to get better in the interim," Presti said. "Use that opportunity, maximize that opportunity. We know we're a better basketball team with Kevin Durant on the floor. But we can have some influence on how good we are in the meantime. We're certainly not going to be looking at the calendar waiting for him to get back. I don't think he'd want us to do that."
It does present the opportunity for the Thunder to flex a bit of their developing depth, with players like Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones set to be called upon more. Westbrook is a much better passer than he often gets credit for, but he's also not always all that keen about doing it. And with Durant removed from the equation for the near future, if those other pieces sputter, will Westbrook continue to trust the schematic changes, or just hijack the offense?
Westbrook is as polarizing a player as there is in the NBA, with some critiquing literally every shot he takes while others subscribe to the #LETWESTBROOKBEWESTBROOK cult. Westbrook isn't the selfish ball-hogging chucker so many still label him as, but he's also not even remotely close to the polished, poised player he needs to be. He's a physical freak, probably the most dynamic, athletic point guard the league has ever seen.
Perhaps both Westbrook's best and worst quality is his brash bullheadedness, his stubborn resistance to common sense and control. Nobody believes in Russell Westbrook more than Russell Westbrook. It leads to wild, reckless quarters, but it also manifests dynastic, explosive takeovers that only he can produce. Westbrook is a relentless ball of atomic energy, waiting to detonate each and every possession. If Durant was the Slim Reaper when handed the totality of the Thunder offense, then Westbrook will be the devil himself. Whether that means he's haunting the Thunder or their opponents, we'll just have to wait and see.