The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 104-101 victory over the host Houston Rockets put the West’s top seed one victory away from advancing to the conference semifinals. The win came harder than it should have, though, and it highlighted some harsh realities for the Thunder as they move toward a second-round matchup with either the Clippers or Grizzlies.
OKC is undefeated without Russell Westbrook. This is not to say that their indestructible point guard was holding them back, only that they hung on in their first test of what will be a Westbrook-less postseason.
Basketball fans and writers have had two full days to dissect Westbrook’s fluky knee injury and what it will and won’t mean for his team. Now that we’ve had an actual game sample, we can separate those predictions into myths and truths.
Truth: “Kevin Durant will have to step it up now.”
The league’s second-leading scorer almost outscored his opponent singlehandedly in the first quarter (17 points for Durant, 19 for Houston), en route to a playoff-career-high-tying 41 points.
Obviously, the Thunder needed every one of those points, but they came at a cost. Durant handled the ball much more than usual and had to create many difficult shots off the dribble. He is such a proficient shot-maker that even some of his far-fetched tries found the net, but he also missed seven in the paint, several of those coming at the end of coast-to-coast drives when he took on almost the entire Houston defense.
The Rockets don’t have the personnel to contain Durant, whose offensive attack has matured so much this season, but upcoming opponents will offer a stiffer test.
Myth: “Westbrook has been holding KD back.”
The Thunder’s point guard took huge developmental strides as a playmaker over the past few months, finding much smarter ways to use his teammates and setting a career-high mark in assists. He still makes 3-4 head-scratching decisions per game, but his relentless attacking mentality puts so much pressure on the defense that it creates openings for his teammates.
Neither Reggie Jackson nor Derek Fisher, who represent the Thunder’s point guard platoon going forward, have anything approaching Westbrook’s scoring or passing ability. He has made Durant more dangerous by ensuring that defenses spend more time in scrambling confusion.
Truth: “The Thunder still have the pieces to make a deep run.”
Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefalosha both developed into true offensive threats this season, though mostly as catch-and-shoot opportunists. Kevin Martin remains one of the league’s most efficient scorers, and has begun to develop some of the same pick-and-roll chemistry with Nick Collison that James Harden once enjoyed with OKC’s backup big man. Even Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson, frequent whipping boys on this blog, have shown recent signs of competence.
Myth: “Scott Brooks has figured it out.”
Perhaps nobody is saying this, which is fair because even Brooks’ limited options should have allowed him to find Durant some rest and a few easier looks, which in turn would help the Thunder hold onto a mid-teens/low-twenties lead through four quarters.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.