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Nets, Wizards meet in battle of former Thunder teammates

Russell Westbrook leads Washington against Kevin Durant and Brooklyn, with James Harden sidelined by a thigh contusion.

Russell Westbrook will face the new-look Nets for the first time on Sunday.

At this point in the long, illustrious NBA careers of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, we’ve seen every possible combination of the three future Hall of Famers play out.

So far, it’s been like pulling on a slot machine and seeing the cherries, bars and bells line up rather randomly.

The latest iteration of the trio — Durant and Harden in Brooklyn, Westbrook in Washington — would have played out Sunday night (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV), when the Nets and Wizards meet at D.C.’s Capitol One Arena. But Harden is out with a left thigh contusion.

It would have been the first time, aside from All-Star Games, that all three were on the court together in a legit NBA game in nearly five years. Since April 3, 2016, to be exact, a 118-110 Houston victory when Harden’s Rockets were settling into an eighth seed while Durant and Westbrook were in OKC futilely chasing the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

Durant did hit the jackpot twice after that, winning championships with the pedigreed Warriors in 2017 and 2018 after making one of the league’s most opportunistic — some would say mercenary — moves ever. Joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, coach Steve Kerr and the league’s most committed front office made Finals success more of a foregone conclusion than a competitive question those two years (and only injuries may have derailed a third).

As teammates, though, the trio and then a couple of tandems still haven’t won it all. The bandit has given back smaller payouts — 27 total All-Star selections, 25 All-NBA berths, 12 scoring titles, three assist titles, four All-Star MVPs and one regular-season MVP for each of them.

As teammates, the trio was together for three years in OKC, reaching the Finals against Miami in 2012. Then Harden was off to Houston, when the Thunder flinched on the prospect of paying three maximum-salary contracts. That left Durant and Westbrook to twice get the Thunder to the West finals over the next four years.

Harden led the Rockets that far once, establishing himself as the franchise player few saw when he understudied the other two in OKC. During their time together, Harden started only seven of 220 games, averaging 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He was voted the league’s Sixth Man Award in 2012. But since he left, his production has ballooned to 29.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 7.8 apg.

For three seasons — 2016-17 to 2018-19 — they were scattered, each on a different team. Westbrook racked up the most loyalty points in fans’ eyes, sticking 11 years with the Thunder as another All-Star, Paul George, came and went. Six days after George was traded to the Clippers in July 2019, Westbrook sought and got a trade, too — joining Harden in Houston.

The results were mixed. The Rockets finished 44-28 in the pandemic-interrupted season, with Harden averaging 34.3 points to Westbrook’s 27.2. But they got bounced in five games in the West semifinals against the Lakers, with the pair combining for 12 fewer points in the series than in the regular season. They had 61 assists but 44 turnovers in the five games. (And by the way, they never played against Durant, who was out last season rehabbing from right Achilles surgery.)

Westbrook got traded again, swapped to Washington in December for point guard John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. Then it was Harden’s turn to move again, a relocation he requested, when Houston three weeks ago shipped him to Brooklyn in a blockbuster four-team deal.

Where does that leave everyone as they finally meet again?

Durant and Harden are thriving with the Nets, the former earning MVP consideration and the latter racking up triple-double highlights. Westbrook? Not so much.

His four triple-doubles in his first four Wizards appearances had an “empty stats” feel as Washington dropped all four games. And his overall play is stirring doubts about limitations in his game at age 32, his $41.3 salary this season and the $97.2 million he has guaranteed through 2022-23 season.

Westbrook’s 18.9 ppg scoring average is his lowest in a decade. His 38.1 field-goal percentage is the worst of his 14 NBA seasons. He’s hitting 33.3 of his 3-pointers, which makes his accuracy on 2-pointers — 39.7% — especially atrocious.

At 18.1 field goal attempts per game, he is shooting more often than LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, MVP candidates enjoying stellar seasons. Meanwhile, his free throw attempts (5.5 per game) are his fewest since his second year and about half what they were just four years ago, when he got to the line 10.4 times nightly.

Westbrook ranks 11th in drives with 16.0 per game, according to stats. But that’s a drop from last season, when the led the NBA with 20.8 while playing alongside Harden.

As intense as Westbrook is on the floor on any given night, he went at it verbally with Wall on Tuesday in Houston. Then he got ejected against Atlanta with his team down by 18 in the fourth quarter Friday, after getting chippy with Hawks guard Rajon Rondo.

Some of Westbrook’s dip can be attributed to his and the team’s hiccups. He has been coping with a left quad muscle injury, on top of a dislocated ring finger on his right hand that is said to have healed. The Wizards also went 13 days without playing and are tied for the dubious league lead with six postponed games so far this season.

Coach Scott Brooks — another OKC connection to Sunday night’s game, along with Nets forward Jeff Green —  believes that Westbrook will find his rhythm with his new team, alongside scoring star Bradley Beal, when he can get on the floor more consistently.

“He’s gonna play better,” Brooks has said. And he had better, as the 3-12 Wizards schedule gets tougher in February.

All three former Thunder pals are in the East now, vying for the same things, Durant and Harden out in front with Westbrook far behind.

If all goes right for Brooklyn this season, Durant and Harden could be the first combination of the trio to deliver on the goal they set for themselves when they became teammates in 2009 — win a championship. 

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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