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Kevin Durant Can Carry Oklahoma City Thunder Until Russell Westbrook Returns

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Kevin Durant Can Carry Oklahoma City Thunder Until Russell Westbrook Returns
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The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't have said so in the past, but it's now official: Kevin Durant and his supporting cast are going to be just fine without Russell Westbrook.

Durant was an absolute beast in the Thunder's first home game since learning they'd be without Westbrook until the All-Star break. After logging 34 points in an 89-85 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Dec. 27, he provided a game-high 33 on 11-of-17 shooting in a 117-86 demolition of the Houston Rockets.

In addition to his ruthlessly efficient scoring, Durant provided 13 rebounds, five assists and heaps of encouragement for his supporting cast. When he checked out of the game with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he received a standing ovation.

Based on his pregame admission that Oklahoma City was going to need all hands on deck without its second-best player, Durant's concerted effort to inspire his teammates was hardly surprising.

Per Nick Gallo of Thunder.com, Durant said:

You can’t be afraid to say you need your teammate.

We have to just do it collectively. We’re not afraid to say that I need Reggie Jackson, I need Serge Ibaka, and I need Kendrick Perkins. I’m not afraid to say that. I need to lean on those guys just like we need to lean on each other, all of us. That’s what the team is about. Through adversity we just have to trust in each other.

All right, we simply can't move on without acknowledging how refreshing and laudable those sentiments are. Durant is an exceptionally confident human being—one who, if pressed, would almost certainly tell you he's the baddest basketball player on the planet. But here, he's recognizing the value of togetherness, humility and team effort.

Years from now, we're going to look back on the days when KD and LeBron James spoiled us with leadership like this and wish we hadn't taken it for granted.

Back to the point, though: Durant was a leader in every sense against the Rockets.

He dominated the game statistically, but he also displayed a noticeably more vocal disposition when exhorting his teammates. Clearly, he recognized that if the Thunder were going to build momentum without Westbrook, he'd have to be the one to make sure everybody was pushing in the same direction.

Fortunately, OKC's bit players are now ready for major roles.

Jeremy Lamb poured in a career-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting, tossing in five rebounds and five assists for good measure. He was remarkably aggressive, showing flashes of the skill and confidence that made him a major component of the trade that sent James Harden to Houston before last season.

In the fourth quarter, Durant howled in appreciation when Lamb finished a contested layup on the break. 

And shortly after KD took a seat, Lamb whipped a half-court alley-oop to Perry Jones, who finished gracefully at the rim. In all, it was an amazing performance from Lamb in a season that is slowly revealing his star potential.

Reggie Jackson held down the point guard position with aplomb, totaling 16 points and a game-high eight assists on 7-of-12 shooting.

The list of contributors goes on: Nick Collison hustled and worked hard on the glass, Thabo Sefolosha defended and Kendrick Perkins even managed to contribute nine rebounds in 23 half-decent minutes.

Jones played one of his best games of the year, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shooting while defending like a man possessed:

The Thunder reserves and role players were fantastic, providing the surge that was missing in last year's playoff defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies. Back then, neither Durant nor his teammates were ready for life without Westbrook.

Things appear to have changed since then. We got a glimpse of a very capable Thunder team earlier this year when Westbrook was sidelined, but this version of Durant—and OKC as a whole—is different.

The caveat here is that Houston was obviously exhausted. They were playing their fourth game in five days, and their play suffered on both ends. But a worn-out Houston team is still dangerous, and it would have been easy for the Thunder to approach this game cautiously.

The fact that Oklahoma City was on the attack from the opening tip shows just how far it has come since Westbrook's last prolonged absence.

Ultimately, the story is the same for the Thunder: Their fate starts and ends with Durant.

He's playing better than ever right now, posting career highs in rebounds, assists and three-point shooting while proving he can lead without his top running mate. Essentially, KD has gone from "great" to "greater."

Compounding the positive outlook for the Thunder is the fact that Durant's supporting cast has been better, making his load a little lighter. OKC's defensive rating has improved from fourth in the league last year to second in 2013-14, per NBA.com. And the offense is, as ever, elite.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Looking ahead, the Thunder have a Dec. 31 tilt with the Portland Trail Blazers that should tell us even more about their fitness for contention without Westbrook. If Durant and OKC take care of business against the Blazers as thoroughly as they did against the Rockets, watch out.

Everything was lining up for a title run in Oklahoma City before Westbrook's injury. Based on the way Durant and his team have responded in these last two games, it doesn't appear as if anything has changed.

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