(I’m revisiting and remixing something I wrote last year on the endlessly fascinating Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant dynamic, because I think much of it still applies. This will be our de facto NBA Finals preview. Enjoy it.)
Zero. In set theory, Zero represents the cardinality, the first and only probable quantity of the null set. It’s the number around which all amounts, positive and negative, are based.
You don’t cloak yourself zero without first cloaking yourself in hubris. (See: Arenas, Gilbert)
Russell Westbrook seeks the spotlight like a summer moth seeks a bug zapper, and it’s magnetism increases as the glow intensifies: Over his four years in the league, Westbrook’s increased his FGA per game 50% to a career-high 19.4 in 2011-12. From last year to this year, his assists per game plummeted.
But Westbrook’s performance is anything but zero.
An eclectic, swirling, cacophonous mess, Westbrook’s basketball stylings – similar in scope to his pal and fellow game-breaker Derrick Rose – should be welcomed, even appreciated. But, as will likely happen in this series if the Oklahoma City Thunder should fall to The Miami Heat, Westbrook will (perhaps unfairly) shoulder most of the blame. Comes with the territory of trying to shoulder the responsibility for winning.
Wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the best pure scorer and one of the most likeable guys in the game (and Doodle Jump enthusiast), Kevin Durant – a luxury for which any point guard would pine – looms out on the wing.
In comedy, there exists a concept of “Double Act,” a pairing which mines their uneven relationship between two partners for humor. Usually of the same gender, age, ethnic origin and profession, but of drastically different personalities or behavior. You’re familiar with them: Abbott and Costello, Akroyd and Belushi, Jay and Silent Bob, Patrick and Olbermann before Keith became a sanctimonious prick.
In each case, one of the duo, the straight man or “feed” is reasonable, inquisitive and deadpan, while the other, the funny man or “comic” cracks wise in unhinged, demonstrative fashion.
When the Double Act works, it works because the discordant personalities allow the relationship to breathe, to open up, to build upon each other’s delineated roles. And, as an audience, you begin to expect this and the smiles precede the jokes themselves.
But, what happens when the straight man steals material from his partner? Then, you get Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook’s pines desperately to prove he, too, can carry the show. His chaotic, unhinged electricity silences doubts that he can. But because Durant is a three-time scoring champ, and our minds our hard-wired to process Durant as the premier scorer, new information is nudged aside to conform with our initial perceptions.
If halfway through Blues Brothers, Akroyd and Belushi swapped dialogue, the move would jar our brains. If Spade started screaming incoherently and running into buildings midway through Tommy Boy, we’d be mildly perturbed. “But, but, Chris Farley should be making me laugh He’s the funny one.”
Fittingly, Durant and Westbrook often take the podium together, against the natural order of things. Durant in his goofyish, subdued getup, and Westbrook in 1500-watt shirts and the Elton John Starter Kit glasses. Durant and his muted earnesty, Westbrook’s sheepish candor. Role reversal.
You can’t fault a man for trying to be the man, the focal point, the axis from which all points, positive and negative, are plotted. You want that man with the ball in his hands, directing to his whim, leading his team.
Perhaps Westbrook’s too enamored with his own talent. Perhaps he’s properly enamored with his own talent. Perhaps he’s even better than we given him credit. What’s fascinating is we, as viewers, don’t yet know.
Whatever the case, the NBA Finals will shed new light on the Westbrook conundrum. The double act is a disjointed, self-indulgent cacophony fraying from creative friction, discordant egos and unchecked machismo … and it’s an enthralling masterpiece.
If they Thunder Up, it could be a championship-winning one, as well.
Westbrook, like his jersey number, will play the central role again starting tonight – the unknown quantity around which all known entities exist. Zero’s naturally unstable and unsustainable: add or subtract anything, and it no longer exists.
In comedy, that’s usually the straight man. The one listed second on the marquis just above the title. In his mind, though, that role should be addressed by another name:
Prediction: Thunder in 7 absolutely thrilling, scintillating games.