Halfway through the Oklahoma City Thunder's showdown against the Portland Trail Blazers, it appeared as though the team was in great position to assert itself as a contender during the period of the 2013-14 season that Russell Westbrook would miss due to injury.
With a 12-point lead, the Thunder were absolutely dominating the tilt. Kevin Durant was rolling, and the rest of the team was following suit as the upstart Blazers struggled to keep pace.
But then the team went cold.
Rip City stormed back into the contest, eventually emerging as the victorious side thanks to a one-point fourth quarter from Durant, the lowlight of a 12-minute period from OKC that featured four made shots in 20 attempts.
As the final buzzer sounded, it carried along many questions. The Thunder had passed each of their first two tests since Westbrook was ruled out until the All-Star break, but they'd failed the biggest one, falling to one of the Western Conference's true contenders after building up a big lead.
At the forefront of the questions was the obvious one: What can this team do to mitigate the damage done by Westbrook's surgery?
Well, OKC can survive without the point guard if...
...Reggie Jackson Is a Positive, Not a Negative as a Ball-Handler
The most obvious player who can change his game is the man who will function as the starting point guard in Westbrook's stead.
Going into the showdown with the Blazers, Reggie Jackson had experienced a bit of a roller coaster since stepping into the starting lineup. He struggled his way to a 4-of-19 outing during a close victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists. Then he rebounded against the Houston Rockets, posting 16 points and eight dimes.
Jackson will likely be a barometer for the Thunder as long as he's in the starting lineup, simply because he's the player who will end up taking on much of the ball-handling responsibility.
Unfortunately for OKC, that means there will be growing pains, as inconsistency rears its ugly head.
Case in point, Jackson had a sequence against the Blazers in which he was tasked with ending a run that had given Rip City the lead late in the fourth quarter. One possession, he took the rock with the shot clock winding down, squeezing past the defense for a fancy reverse layup. A short while later, he couldn't convert at the charity stripe, despite his gaudy 92.9 percent shooting on the season.
Then, with 48.2 seconds left in the game and Oklahoma City trailing by two possessions, Jackson bricked another free throw off the back iron, trimming the margin to three instead of a more manageable two.
If that keeps up, the Thunder will have a tough time beating good teams.
Jackson is so crucial to the efforts, as Kevin Durant absolutely must be joined by another ball-handler. While the small forward has good control over a possession when he's touching the orange sphere, he can morph into a turnover machine when he tries to do too much.
The Boston College product doesn't necessarily have to produce numbers of his own. The 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists he put up against Rip City might as well be gravy on top of the biscuits he cooks up just by taking pressure off Durant.
Part of the reason the scoring leader has had such an impressive career is Westbrook. That penchant for taking wild shots, the ability to use athletic moves and get right into the teeth of the defense, the knack for drawing defensive attention. All of it helps make Durant's job easier, and that's what Jackson has to provide now.
If he can't play efficient basketball, that'll be a death knell for the Thunder's hopes of keeping pace with the top of the Western Conference.
...Serge Ibaka Grows on Offense
The Thunder have been waiting and waiting on Serge Ibaka to morph into an offensive player capable of carrying the offense on any given night.
Essentially, they need him to become a version of Chris Bosh.
Part of what makes the Miami Heat so special is the big man's ability to step up when either of the other Big Three members are missing time due to injury, or when cold shooting performances are ruling the day and someone has to get the team out of a funk. Despite his lessened per-game averages, Bosh is incredibly important for the defending champions.
General manager Sam Presti has been hoping that Ibaka becomes such a player ever since the Thunder drafted him back in 2008. Hell, he even wagered on Ibaka's offense developing when he essentially picked the Congolese power forward over James Harden before the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
But Ibaka hasn't developed much.
He remains a pick-and-pop player who thrives on the defensive end. And while that's valuable in and of itself, it's not enough. He isn't creating shots for himself, and that's even more of a priority now that one of the leading playmakers has been knocked out of the lineup.
Against Portland, Ibaka scored 17 points, shooting 8-of-14 from the field.
At first glance, that's an impressive line, especially when coupled with his four rebounds and three blocked shots. But it's diminished because the power forward didn't do much to create those points for himself.
He scored the first four points of the game off Reggie Jackson assists, and there wasn't a single bucket he made (excluding his free-throw attempts) that he drained without first receiving a shot-creating pass or corralling an offensive rebound and going right back up.
That has to change.
...Derek Fisher Enjoys Prince Music
It's time for the veteran point guard to party like it's 1999.
For most players, that wouldn't mean much, but Derek Fisher was actually in the NBA when the world was freaking out about Y2K. The lefty point guard started 21 games during the 1998-99 season, the third professional go-round of his lengthy career, and he was a consistent role player for a very good Los Angeles Lakers team that eventually ran into the David Robinson/Tim Duncan buzzsaw.
It's easy to focus on what Reggie Jackson can do, as he's the one who steps into the starting role while Westbrook rehabs. But what often goes overlooked is the trickle-down effect, as the ascension of one player means that another one has to step into the newly promoted player's role.
Such is the case for Fish.
All of a sudden, he has to do more than wait for his opportunity to step onto the court and shoot corner threes. During the loss to Rip City, Fisher actually played major minutes.
Oh Scotty Brooks. THAT is unacceptable. RT @DarnellMayberry Derek Fisher has played as many minutes (21) as Jackson.— Andrew Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) January 1, 2014
Now technically, Darnell Mayberry's tweet is a little bit inaccurate (writes for The Oklahoman), as Fisher finished the game with only 19 minutes played. But the point still stands, and Andy Bailey's is even more perfect.
Fisher should not be playing so many minutes at this advanced stage of his career, and it's especially important that the Thunder hide him whenever he does end up on the court. If he can provide a few vintage triples and avoid making any negative contributions, that'll be all the Thunder need.
He's essentially becoming the backup point guard on a team that wants to play without one.
...Kevin Durant Becomes Even Better
This might not be possible, but the Thunder sure wouldn't mind if it became a reality.
Quite frankly, they aren't even close based on the way Durant has been playing.
At first, the NBA's scoring leader was hesitant to accept a bigger role in the offense. He essentially said as much to Thunder.com's Nick Gallo:
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.
Ideally, Durant is correct.
In a perfect world, the Thunder excel because all of the previous points come true. Jackson is an asset at point guard, D-Fish remembers how to play quality basketball as a role player, and Ibaka develops into more than a pick-and-pop specialist.
I'm not entirely sure how Kendrick Perkins fits into the equation, seeing as he's utterly incompetent on the offensive end, but let's just gloss over that.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, we don't usually live in that perfect world. But there's a positive, and this is where I let B/R's Grant Hughes take it away:
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."
Durant is capable of carrying the Thunder without Westbrook, but only in limited doses. Take the first half of the loss to Portland, when he scored 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. He was creating shots for himself left and right, and the Blazers couldn't figure out how to contain him.
But they figured it out.
During the second half, the scoring stud was held in check by the defensive adjustments employed by Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard, and he dropped only a single point during the fourth quarter, going 0-of-5 from the field.
Maybe it would help if his coach made some adjustments of his own.
But Scott Brooks has consistently shown that he's a rather limited coach. Especially in terms of creativity.
Remember when Westbrook was supposed to miss significant time at the start of the 2013-14 season? Even though Brooks had much of the offseason to prepare for such a situation, he still didn't help the Thunder ease the burden on Durant.
There was an early game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in which Derrick Williams and Corey Brewer combined to shut down Durant, holding him to only 13 points. Brooks stubbornly refused to make any adjustments, and his best player was left out to dry, trying in vain to get the ball in the same manner (that screen that leads him to the top of the key) and then going one-on-five far too often.
The same thing has started happening in crucial situations, and it doesn't bode well for the Thunder's future. More than anything else, this has to change.
Can the Thunder remain elite without Westbrook?
Oklahoma City is still going to be a playoff team while the team's star point guard recovers from the arthroscopic surgery. But it won't be an elite team unless some of these hypotheticals become realities.
For the Thunder, "surviving" doesn't just involve sinking into the bottom half of the playoff picture, but rather staying in position to challenge for home-court advantage when Westbrook returns to the lineup.
It won't be easy, but it can be done. Jackson, Fisher, Ibaka, Durant and Brooks can all make it happen.