With Russell Westbrook Out, Kevin Durant Has Made Thunder Conference Favorites

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2014

Soobum Im/USA Today

Apparently, nobody told Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder that they were supposed to merely stay afloat without Russell Westbrook.

Thanks to an incredible scoring surge by KD that has reordered the MVP hierarchy, rapid growth from a young supporting cast and a laser-focus on knocking off key conference foes, OKC is now perched firmly atop the standings in a historically tough West.

To get there, they vaulted over the stalwart San Antonio Spurs, notching a 111-105 road win on Wednesday.

Naturally, Durant led the way with 36 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Seemingly unstoppable of late, KD's scoring run has been historically remarkable. And if that sounds at all hyperbolic, consider the following:

Not sold? How about this:

Or this:

Following his career-high 54 point outburst against the Golden State Warriors last week, Dubs center Andrew Bogut summed things up from an opponent's perspective, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com):

He's one of the best players in the league, you know, up there with LeBron (James). He shoots the ball very, very well and at his height, there's not much you can really do when he gets hot. There's a reason why he's a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer and possibly MVP this year.

There were certainly some rough patches for Durant against the Spurs. San Antonio has been able to shut down plenty of opposing stars over its decade-plus run of dominance, and it managed to harass KD enough to force a whopping 11 turnovers. Still, as the game wound down, it became apparent that even the disciplined, aggressive Spurs had no answers:

It's also worth mentioning that Kawhi Leonard left the contest with a broken finger after logging just 15 minutes. He's the guy San Antonio relies on most to bother Durant, and his absence left a difficult task for the Spurs' remaining wings. Compounding the problem: Danny Green didn't dress either.

Durant amassed 24 of his 36 points after Leonard exited the game.

But let's make sure not to take anything away from Durant's effort in this game or his remarkable run as a whole. Westbrook's absence proved fatal to the Thunder in last year's playoffs, and Durant was clearly overmatched in OKC's postseason loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma City was supposed to get a taste of life without its second star. But a quicker-than-expected comeback from knee surgery No. 2 by Westbrook kept us from seeing if Durant was any more prepared to handle things on his own.

As it turns out, he absolutely was.

Kevin Durant Since Russell Westbrook's Injury

While KD deserves the lion's share of credit, he hasn't elevated the Thunder to the top spot out West without help.

Reggie Jackson continued his solid work as Westbrook's replacement in the starting lineup, and he made sure to keep his streak of big scoring nights against the Spurs alive with 27 points and eight assists on Wednesday. 

In his other two games against San Antonio this year, the 23-year-old guard dropped 21 and 23 points, respectively. He, more than any other member of the Thunder, thrives when Durant gets the kind of extra defensive attention he received on Wednesday.

In addition, Jeremy Lamb has quietly been improving as a rotation mainstay, Serge Ibaka has played better than ever defensively and rookie Steven Adams has continued his mix of physical play and high-percentage scoring.

Not all of the numbers are eye-popping, but OKC's reserves have handled themselves well in larger roles since Westbrook's latest setback.

Again, the Thunder's secondary pieces don't have to make a lot of noise while Westbrook is out. They just need to continue contributing in limited ways while making sure KD doesn't get too exhausted.

Of course, at this point, it's hard to envision a scenario in which Durant could possibly be overwhelmed.

Chances are, the Thunder are going to have to get past San Antonio to reach their ultimate goal this year. The Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets will probably also have something to say about who comes out of the West, but San Antonio's combination of experience and undeniable talent means the road to the Finals will almost certainly run through the Alamo.

Having now beaten the Spurs three straight times this year, the Thunder look like a team fully prepared to travel that road.

Ultimately, the Thunder will need Westbrook back to reach their full potential in the long run. And even though he's playing so well without his running mate, KD could still use him for a few things right now:

But hey, Durant and the Thunder are cruising. And if media fatigue is the biggest problem Westbrook's injury has created, I'm pretty sure Oklahoma City will take it.