Though Westbrook is often scrutinized for ball hogging or spotlight stealing, he's without a doubt the second-best player on the Oklahoma City roster and an incredibly crucial part of the Thunder's success. Without him, the Thunder are faced with the difficult task of making adjustments to accommodate his absence.
There were questions even before Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus about how good Oklahoma City's chances were at repeating as Western Conference champions. Now with their star point guard out for the remainder of their playoff run, the Thunder have an even larger mountain to climb en route to the NBA Finals.
Like any other team facing unforeseen adversity, OKC must band together and make the necessary adjustments to ensure their survival in the grueling postseason.
In particular, there's an adjustment that's very necessary for the Thunder to make—and that change involves more team-oriented basketball and better ball movement.
This idea may seem a bit illogical with an incendiary scorer like Kevin Durant on the team. However, the Thunder must cut down on the isolation-type plays made for Durant in order to maximize their offensive effectiveness and efficiency.
With a healthy Westbrook and Durant, OKC has two very capable scorers on the court who can create their own offense with a variety of jump shooting and attacking the rim. When one seems to struggle a bit, the other is there to catch him and could shoulder a lot of the offensive burden to prevent dry spells for the Thunder.
This two-superstar system has worked well for the Thunder and is often misunderstood as one player shunning out touches from the other. On the contrary, I liken it to more of Durant and Westbrook understanding each other's games and rhythm of play, which allows them to help each other out when the other is on a cold streak.
However, Westbrook will not be playing anymore this postseason, so that leaves Durant without a reliable second option on offense to lean on. Sure, guys like Kevin Martin or Serge Ibaka could put up some points, but neither of them could create instant offense as well as Westbrook.
This is where the adjustment of ball movement comes in. Durant proved in the first half of Game 3 against the Houston Rockets that he could light up the scoreboard sans Westbrook. Things were going well for KD in the first two quarters, where he dropped 27 points and the Thunder led by 17 at the break.
Once the second half came around, though, Durant's shots stopped dropping and OKC's offense slowed down accordingly. KD was sort of forcing some shots and his struggle opened the door for a Houston comeback. The Rockets gladly walked through that open door and ended up almost stealing a game, but Durant's fortunate roll on a three-pointer in the last minute set the Thunder up for the win.
Luck was on Oklahoma City's side that night, but that game was a much-needed wake-up call for the Thunder as to what changes need to be made to prevent losing leads against better teams down the stretch of the playoffs.
Durant carried the Thunder in the first half, but when he wasn't carrying them in the second half, they found themselves parched for offense. A poor 14-point performance in the third quarter demonstrated that they needed more team-oriented basketball.
There are other scoring options on the team who can make open shots when given the chance. However, these players are a bit more deficient with creating offense off the dribble, so moving the ball to give them the easiest possible look at a shot is important.
Look, for example, at this sequence from early in the season against the Raptors.
Hasheem Thabeet found an easy dunk at the hoop as a result of great passing from (former) guard Eric Maynor and a smart play by Nick Collison to draw the defenders in and allow Thabeet a clean look at the rim.
These three players in this sequence are obviously far from star players, but they executed well and moved the ball to get a high-percentage shot. This is what the Thunder need to incorporate more of into their style of play in order to keep their offense functioning.
Sure, Durant could tear it up single-handedly, but that can only go so far, as we saw against Houston. This type of play makes all five guys on the court for OKC threats to score. Durant has greatly improved his passing and facilitation this season, so to see him play a point-forward type of role during the rest of the playoffs is something head coach Scott Brooks has already started to work into the games.
Moving the ball means that opponents will have to stay on their toes defensively, constantly rotating and helping instead of focusing and double-teaming a guy like Durant, who they would usually and correctly assume to be the man taking the shot.
In this clip, we see more examples of good passing and creating easy shots against a quality defensive team in the Spurs.
Durant said it best in that video and was absolutely right about having to trust his teammates to make the shot. That trust and willingness to defer to the open man is what could really help the Thunder, who are facing an unprecedented stretch without their floor leader and second-leading scorer.
Kevin Martin is one of the best spot-up shooter options that Oklahoma City has, and even defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha has really improved his shot to become a secondary spot-up option. Frequent passes and forcing defensive movement can pull the opponents off of these guys and give them enough room to bury their shots.
As you can see, a lot of these shots by Martin came from good ball movement and kick-outs. KD can draw an insane amount of attention when holding the basketball, so him having the offensive awareness and passing ability to get the ball to teammates like Martin on the perimeter could provide a large boost for OKC's scoring.
Overall, the Thunder need to really just get acclimated to life without Westbrook right now and make the necessary changes little by little. They shouldn't go out there and overthink every possession; there are going to be times where Durant is feeling it and needs the ball in isolation.
However, it would be far more beneficial in the larger perspective for Oklahoma City to increase its passes per possession to provide a fail-safe for KD when he struggles to create offense.