OKLAHOMA CITY — Seated just a few feet away and wearing the same type of eyeglasses just for style, Russell Westbrook took the chance to compliment fellow All-Star Kevin Durant on all the things he's been doing well even though his shots haven't been falling as frequently as usual.
Durant interrupted to say thank you to his teammate, drawing laughs in the postgame news conference after their Oklahoma City Thunder took a 2-0 lead on the Dallas Mavericks in their Western Conference playoff series.
It's more than just Westbrook's words that are picking his teammate up.
Westbrook is the second-leading scorer in the playoffs so far, averaging 28.5 points per game while Durant has missed almost twice as many shots as he has made. Durant's 15-for-44 shooting has been masked by his dramatic jumper in the final seconds to win Game 1 and by Westbrook's sharp play.
"If you look at Durant, I think we guarded him as well in first two games as anybody has the whole season, forcing him into some tough shots," Dallas All-Star Dirk Nowitzki said. "He still gets his points because he's a great scorer. He gets to the line, especially (in Game 2).
"But Westbrook is the guy who has been phenomenal. ... He's kept them in games, he's been aggressive, he's had a great shooting rhythm lately and so he's been the guy that's been killing us."
Westbrook has been able to solve Dallas' zone defense, using his quick first step to create enough separation for him to get off pull-up jumpers from around the free-throw line. In the first two games, Westbrook is 14 for 24 on mid-range jumpers from between 13 and 19 feet. He had eight in Game 1, six in Game 2.
"He has the speed and ability to get inside the zone and pull up for that shot, and very rarely can you contest it. He stops on a dime, has great elevation and shoots over his defender," coach Scott Brooks said.
"He's a very confident player and we need that. We need him to play that way."
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is considering other kinds of defenses to deploy, but right now Westbrook is taking the kind of shots Dallas wants him to get. The problem is that he's making a few too many.
"It's do we want him shooting jump shots or do we want him attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line," Carlisle said. "I think the answer is we want to have him shoot contested jump shots and we've just got to get closer to him."
Dallas was frustratingly close to sweeping the two games in Oklahoma City, only to head back home for Game 3 on Thursday night trailing after a pair of losses by four total points. The Mavs took off Tuesday while the more youthful Thunder had a light practice session.
"A playoff series is a major test of perseverance. You've got to overcome a lot of things," Carlisle said. "Right now, we've got to overcome the shot-making that they've thrown at us, we've got to overcome some errors in officiating, we've got to overcome being in a situation where we had opportunities to win those two games and came up short.
"It's just got to strengthen our resolve for Game 3."
If Carlisle is to make changes, he'll need to figure out a way to slow Westbrook down without giving opportunities for Durant, the league's three-time scoring champion, to get back in his shooting rhythm.
"I missed some shots that of course I would love to make but I've got faith in myself, I've got faith in my hard work and I'm always going to stay positive," said Durant, who scored 14 of his 26 points on foul shots in Game 2. "So, I'm going to continue to keep working hard, like I always do, and hopefully I knock some down."
Until he does, Westbrook is trying to pick up the slack by showing off an improving part of his game.
"They've been crowding the paint and I'm not allowed to take it in the paint as much as I want," Westbrook said.
"I've been working on my shot since I've been in the NBA. I'm just trying to use it to my advantage now."