Real friends: How the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook partnership bent but never broke

KEVIN DURANT'S GAME-TYING 3-pointer had barely passed through the bottom of the net before Russell Westbrook was racing toward him.

As Gregg Popovich signaled for a timeout with eight minutes to play in Tuesday's Game 5 between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook dropped into a crouch, unleashed one of his trademark snarls and thumped Durant across the chest.

"It's winning time!" Westbrook yelled at Durant. "It's your time!"

The rest of the game, however, was Westbrook's time. Durant missed both of his attempts in the final eight minutes, but Westbrook went 3-for-8, including an and-1 layup with six seconds remaining to seal the Thunder win.

"Russ was a maniac tonight keeping us in it," Durant said afterward.

Throughout their eight years together, it has often seemed -- at least from the outside -- as if the Thunder's title hopes were torn between one or the other.

Durant's shot or Westbrook's shot. Durant's scoring title or Westbrook's scoring title. Durant's team or Westbrook's team.

The Thunder buddies have both ranked in the top 10 in player efficiency rating in each of the past six seasons, but having two elite players with different approaches has often been painted as more of a curse than a blessing. How can you satisfy two of the best scorers in the NBA with one ball?

Durant and Westbrook recognize their differences, but they see them as the counterbalances they need on the court.

"We've worked together for so long, been two of the best players in the league for eight years," Durant said. "What makes us great together is whatever area I'm lacking in, he picks me up. Whatever area he's lacking in, I pick him up. That's what complements each other. It shouldn't be about who's better, or who does this better.

"When I need someone to be that rah-rah-get-it-off-your-chest type of guy, that's who I go to. When he needs someone to be like, 'Russ, calm down, it's all good, move past it,' he comes to me. It kind of works out perfectly."

That's certainly the case right now. As Durant's free agency looms in the background, the Thunder are up 3-2 on the mighty Spurs in the conference semifinals with a chance to close out perhaps their greatest series win to date at home in Thursday's Game 6 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But the process the Durant-Westbrook partnership took to get here wasn't always so simple.

DURANT AND WESTBROOK arrived on the "ground floor," as Durant likes to say.

Durant was drafted No. 2 in 2007 and immediately ascended to the role of cornerstone for the then-rebuilding Seattle SuperSonics. Westbrook, a bottle rocket the team hoped to contain, arrived the following year. Both were 20 years old when they played their first game together for the newly christened Oklahoma City Thunder.

"I felt like he was the guy ready to take on that challenge with me," Durant said. "The year I got drafted, they traded away Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, all the guys that wanted to start over with me, and I felt that the day he got drafted, Russ was the next piece to to help me to that."

A setup role didn't come naturally to the fiery, dynamic athlete who had never been a full-time point guard. The Thunder chose to play through the growing pains of their young duo, and while there were plenty of pains for both, Westbrook's were readily apparent: He led the league in total turnovers as a rookie, as Oklahoma City won just 23 games.

The Thunder, with James Harden and Serge Ibaka in tow, would thrive from thereon out, winning 50 and 55 games the following two seasons, respectively. But months before their run to the 2011 Western Conference finals, Durant told people close to him he wanted a meeting with general manager Sam Presti to discuss his growing doubts about Westbrook.

Things came to a head that December, when Durant, already emerging as the superstar you could take home to mom, tried to calm the excitable Westbrook during a timeout in Memphis after the guard had ripped into teammate Thabo Sefolosha for hesitating on an open 3. Durant and Westbrook began to argue, with the latter swatting away the former's hand.

Westbrook finished the game 0-for-13, Durant scored 32 points and the Thunder won 98-95.

"We're going to disagree sometimes, like I've always been saying," Durant said afterward, "but I'm behind him 110 percent, and he's the same way with me."

The meeting with Presti never happened. Instead, Durant resolved to keep building on the promise he saw when the foundation was first set.

"I think about that all the time," Durant says now of winning a title with Westbrook. "That's the ultimate goal. When you've built this thing from the bottom up, the pioneers of this thing, you want to go through the great times with them because we've been through the tough ones.

"That's the thing about me and Russ -- we're always trying to grow. There's always going to be bumps and bruises along the way. That's just how it is."

DURANT SAT ALONE on the podium wearing a plain gray, long-sleeve shirt rolled up to his forearms. The top-seeded Thunder were staring at a 2-1 series hole to the Grizzlies in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. Westbrook, his usual partner on the news-conference dais, was gone.

Then came the question: What have you learned about yourself without Westbrook?

"That we need him," Durant told the assembled media. "We miss him."

A torn meniscus in the opening round sidelined Westbrook for the duration, and the Thunder would ultimately bow out with a 4-1 series loss to Memphis. The struggles would continue the following season, as Westbrook underwent two more knee surgeries and missed 36 games.

The Thunder were forced to forge a new identity in 2014, and that meant duct-taping the green light in the on position for Durant. The result: a January known now as the "Slim Reaper" era. Durant averaged 35.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists without Westbrook, leading the Thunder to 10 straight wins and establishing himself as the MVP front-runner.

Westbrook returned after the All-Star break, but the Thunder were smoked by the Miami Heat on national television in his first game back. They lost two more with Durant and Westbrook trying to share possessions, and Durant, who desperately wanted to win MVP, began worrying that the readjustment to Westbrook would hurt his chances.

Then Brian Keefe, a Thunder assistant at the time, delivered a blunt message: Get over yourself.

"He let me know how bad I was -- my body language, my attitude," Durant told NBA.com's David Aldridge in 2014. "I just decided to look at myself and self-evaluate. And he was right. I had to change how I was thinking, how I was acting toward my teammates. Everything."

Durant listened, Westbrook returned to form and the Thunder went on to 59 wins. In his now-famous MVP speech, Durant saved his much-maligned teammate for last.

"There's days when I just want to tackle you and tell you to snap out of it sometimes, but I know there's days when you want to do the same thing with me," Durant told Westbrook. "I love you, man. I love you. A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player and I'm the first to have your back, man, through it all."

A season later, the roles reversed. A foot injury forced Durant to watch as Westbrook tried to drag the Thunder into the postseason. After one particularly incredible performance, Durant texted friends that Westbrook was the best player in the league.

One year after Durant had surged to the top of the MVP race with Westbrook sidelined, an unfiltered Westbrook went on to win the scoring title. Durant and Westbrook, it's fair to say, were both at their individual best with the other out for long stretches.

But the two seasons in which injuries would have kept either one from the playoffs were also the only two since the Thunder came to form that they did not advance to a conference finals. Indeed, the evidence has long suggested that Oklahoma City is at its best when the ball is moving and everyone is working in concert. Even this season, when Golden State and San Antonio dominated the West with ball-movement-friendly attacks, the Thunder finished last in the NBA in passes per 100 possessions, passes per game and passes per 36 minutes.

The underlying message, to themselves and to others, is clear: The Thunder are better off when Durant and Westbrook are working together.

THE STRETCH FROM the parking garage to the locker room has long served as Westbrook's personal catwalk, a place where the fashion-conscious point guard lets his clothes do the shouting. Before Game 4 last week against the Spurs, he didn't disappoint: Westbrook quietly strutted down the bowels of the Chesapeake Energy Arena in a custom-made, orange Anaheim Ducks jersey.

The uniform bore his usual No. 0, with "The Brodie" emblazoned on the back. On the front was an "A" patch, a hockey tradition that stands for "alternate captain."

The symbolism wasn't a mistake; Westbrook asked for the "A" to be stitched on.

These days, Westbrook calls Durant the Thunder's "No. 1 option," and Durant calls Westbrook the Thunder's best player. While they may have starkly different personalities, the teammates have learned to appreciate each other for them.

"What works for Russell may not work for me. What works for me doesn't work for Russell," Durant said. "He's an athletic guy, and he uses his body a lot to make his decisions. That doesn't work for me. I'm not as athletic as Russell. I can't just run down the lane and dunk over two or three people. That's just not my game. We don't have to be the same person for us to be effective and work together."

They take turns leading huddles. They bounce ideas off each other. They yell at each other. They praise each other.

In each of the five All-Star Weekends they've spent together, Durant and Westbrook rode the same bus to events. They have even gone out of their way just to ride together to Sunday's game. Durant drove a car 25 minutes this year in Toronto to meet up with Westbrook. The year before that, it was a 15-minute drive. The year before that, they both drove to meet in the middle.

"The thing that they have is a lot of appreciation for each other, mutual respect for each other, and with the shared history that we all have, I think they really value each other," said Nick Collison, the only player who has been with the franchise longer than Durant. "They get frustrated at times with things that happen on the court like we all do, but those are usually instances that just happened then and there. They don't take it with them."

Former teammates don't deny that Westbrook is difficult to play with; one said Westbrook sometimes tries too hard for his own good. But Durant has been unwavering in his public support of his teammate. He chose Westbrook to introduce him at his induction to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame last November. He called Westbrook his "favorite teammate in the world" at the 2014 ESPYs. He even requested Westbrook remain last in the pregame starting lineup announcements -- traditionally Durant's spot -- when Westbrook returned from injury in 2013.

"He's a kind of a heart-on-your-sleeve type of guy and I'm more observant, keep it up here and figure it out inside my head type of guy. That's what makes us come together and work."
Kevin Durant

Most recently, Durant called Mavericks owner Mark Cuban an idiot for claiming Westbrook didn't warrant superstar status. League insiders interpreted Cuban's comment as an early recruiting pitch to Durant, but it turned out to be a massive miscalculation of one of basketball's most misunderstood relationships.

"Russ is an open book," Durant said. "What you see is what you get. He doesn't hide anything. Everything you see is who he is. That's something else that makes us different. He's a kind of a heart-on-your-sleeve type of guy, and I'm more observant, keep it up here and figure-it-out-inside-my-head type of guy. That's what makes us come together and work."

Westbrook, naturally, was a bit more direct in addressing any potential strife between him and Durant before the season.

"That's a part of the media world," Westbrook said. "That's normal. When they see something good, they want to pull it apart. When they see two good guys getting along, they try to find ways to see who's better and see if either can play without the other and see if the team can play without the other. To me, it's all B.S."

A MISCOMMUNICATION IN Game 2 against the Spurs gave Danny Green a wide-open 3-pointer. On the sideline, Durant and Westbrook didn't hold back their displeasure in each other.

They yelled. They cursed. And then, as they walked back onto the court, Durant rubbed Westbrook's head and Westbrook slapped Durant on the back.

Durant isn't afraid to admit he still gets mad at Westbrook. He talks about how they still cuss each other out. Practices and film sessions can get heated. But in their eight years together, there's always been the assurance of tomorrow. After every spat, after every celebration, they could count on regrouping the next day and moving forward.

There have been no indications that Durant, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career this summer, plans to move. But until he makes it official, a franchise and the city that lives for it holds their breath in hopes that he'll be back to finish what he and Westbrook started.

"You have thoughts when you hear all the time, people ask you so much [about if I can play with Westbrook]," Durant said. "I'm not naive to the fact. I'm not going to get questions like, 'What's up with Russell?' I'm sure he got questions like, 'What's up with Kevin?' It's just a part of life.

"What I never did is, I never let that stuff control my thought process on how I was going to approach a season or how I'm going to approach playing with him. He makes mistakes, I gotta deal with them. I make mistakes, he's gotta deal with them. That's just part of a team. We're not the only two guys on the team, so we've got to put that stuff aside and see how we can make this whole thing work."