The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a huge blow to their championship chances when Russell Westbrook was declared done for the season. However, even without the superstar point guard, the team is destined for an NBA Finals appearance.
When CBS Sports reported that Westbrook underwent surgery on Saturday for a torn meniscus in his right knee, many immediately wrote the Thunder off as a non-contender in the West.
However, with the 24-year-old out of the lineup, OKC is arguably still the premier powerhouse in the conference—largely due to Kevin Durant’s presence.
Right after the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, Durant is the best active basketball player on the planet. The swingman improved his game significantly since last season, when he and Westbrook navigated the Thunder to a five-game defeat to James and the Heat in the finals.
While KD didn’t jump off the page—compared to his career numbers—with 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists, he notably joined the exclusive 50-40-90 fraternity.
By shooting 51.0 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from beyond the arc and 90.5 percent from the line, he became an even more effective weapon from everywhere on the floor.
He’s certainly capable of scoring more and now has the freedom he wasn’t afforded with Westbrook taking a significant number of attempts.
During the team’s 20-game stretch throughout the 2012 playoffs, Durant averaged 28.5 points on 19.2 shots (51.7 percent from the field) attempts per game. Surprisingly, Westbrook—considered to be the second-option for this squad—averaged 23.1 points on 20.4 attempts per game (45.7 percent field-goal shooting).
As great as Westbrook can be, he was taking away valuable opportunities from a deadly-efficient superstar. While his presence undoubtedly opened things up for Durant, there shouldn’t be a significant shooting percentage drop-off now that Reggie Jackson has been inserted as the starting PG.
In Game 3 against the Houston Rockets—OKC’s first game with Westbrook sidelined since he entered the league five years ago— Durant clearly proved he is capable of shouldering the load—and not just in the points department.
He led the team in points (41, on 13-of-30 shooting), rebounds (14), assists (4) and tied two others for steals (2) on the way to a 104-101 victory on the road.
Expect to see Durant continue to stuff the stat sheet, especially as coach Scott Brooks tailors this team’s offense exclusively around a lone star for the first time in his five-year coaching career.
Once this team completely adjusts to life without Westbrook, it will continue its surge through the postseason.
Either opponent will pose a major challenge, but they are not absent of flaws and are absolutely beatable. The one potential matchup that will cause the Thunder the most problems is San Antonio.
Fortunately for OKC, the two won’t meet until the conference finals. There’s a chance the Spurs will be eliminated before that and—if not—their aging roster may be exhausted from a tough semifinals showdown with either the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors.
As much as Westbrook’s athleticism will be missed in a seven-game series against the older Spurs, Durant and the rest of the supporting cast possess the ability to navigate past the No. 2 seeded team.
It won’t be easy and they might need some luck, but we’re still penciling in the Thunder to rematch the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals.