Kevin Durant Proving He Can Carry OKC Thunder to NBA Finals

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Kevin Durant Proving He Can Carry OKC Thunder to NBA Finals
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Believe.

Kevin Durant won't let Russell Westbrook's absence kill the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship pursuit. He just won't.

Forget about what you saw against the Houston Rockets in Games 4 and 5, the Thunder aren't on the brink of an implosion or collapse. They're not one loss away from sagging their shoulders, hanging their heads and passively stepping aside. 

Oklahoma City is here to play, to fight. Durant has the Thunder here to contend, Westbrook or not.

From lifting them to a Game 6 and series-clinching victory over the Houston Rockets to his immaculate performance to open the semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies, Durant has proved there can be a life without Westbrook.

In Game 1 against the Grizzlies, Durant had 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, one steal and two blocks in 44 minutes of burn. He converted on 50 percent of his field goals and went 9-of-10 at the line. He also hit the game-winning shot, because that's what championship-caliber superstars do.

Durant's game-winner.

Are the Thunder better with Westbrook? Of course they are. Much better. But are they forlorn without him? Absolutely not. Because of Durant.

The Durantula is averaging 32.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, six assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks on 48.7 percent shooting through his first seven postseason games. Only two players in NBA history have averaged at least 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists on 48 percent or better shooting.

Who are they, you ask? Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

It's still early to assume Durant will sustain such numbers for the postseason's entirety, but at the same time, why not? Westbrook is on the sidelines (or in the luxury suites), and he's one of the few (the only?) players left in Oklahoma City who can create his own offense.

 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Durant has given OKC life after Westbrook.

These are the kinds of stat lines Durant needs to put up for the Thunder to contend. And thus far, he has. Advancing past Houston wasn't easy, but adjusting to life without a top-10 superstar never is.

When push came to shove, and a shove turned to a full-fledged assault, Durant delivered. He pushed the Thunder past the Rockets and out in front of the favored Grizzlies. And he's going to push them even further.

To be clear, this isn't to say the Thunder are going to win a championship. They have to upend the Grizzlies first, then do the same to the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs. After that, it's down to one of four Eastern Conference teams (logically the Heat), so the road to raising a banner is a long one. 

Oklahoma City's close call against Houston wasn't a swan song. It wasn't the remnants of a title contender fending off an inferior opponent for one last time. And the series-opening victory over Memphis wasn't luck. It was the Thunder. The Kevin Durant-led, Russell Westbrook-less Thunder.

No, they might not make it out of the Western Conference. They might not even make it out of the second round. But they can. It's possible.

It won't be easy, but it was never going to be, regardless of whether Westbrook or Kevin Martin was going to be the second offensive option. 

There will always be opposing powerhouses like the Grizzlies and Spurs (or Warriors) standing in the way. Once a team has finished atop the conference, it has a target on its back. The Thunder were never going to traipse their way to the NBA Finals. It was always going to be a struggle.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Thunder will be fine as long as they have Durant.

Everything comes down to Durant and his ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to win. He's the piece of the Thunder that can't be removed, and it shows.

We often forget that Durant can do everything. He can set the tone defensively, on the glass, as a playmaker and, yes, as a scorer. And he can do it all at the same time. It's what makes him so elite. It's what he's done in nearly every game since Westbrook went down.

We wouldn't hesitate to consider the Heat contenders if they lost Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Even if they played in the West, we wouldn't count them out. Why? Because of the now four-time MVP LeBron James.

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Five games into (somewhat) uncharted territory as Oklahoma City's lifeline, we owe Durant that same respect. He doesn't have an MVP award to his credit, and he has had the luxury of playing alongside Westbrook (a completely healthy Westbrook) since 2009. He's never had to carry the Thunder the way he needs to now.

Just because he's never done it, though, doesn't mean he can't. He can. He is.

Per NBA.com (subscription required), the Thunder still have the third-highest offensive rating of any playoff team (107.8). They're still the second-most efficient team from beyond the arc (35.7 percent). They are still relevant.

As long as Durant is on the floor, the Thunder are contenders. Legitimate, menacing contenders. Just as they were with Westbrook, and just as they'll stay with Durant.

"That was the only shot I could find," Durant explained of his game-winner against the Grizzlies (via ESPN.com), "and, by the grace of God, it went in."

By the graces of Durant, the Thunder are still alive. Not as just another playoff team, but as a contender.

 

*All stats from this article compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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