Kevin Durant was up to his usual scoring self. Lighting it up from long-range, driving to the rim and getting to the free-throw line was the modus operandi of KD in Thursday night's game against the Denver Nuggets. With 22 points in the first half and the Thunder down nine, things looked manageable for Durant's crew. Maybe a comeback was on the horizon.
Then, reality set in. Those drives to the rim weren't nearly as easy as they used to be. Those jumpers weren't quite as open as they were before. The ball movement wasn't what Thunder fans expected. Even the defense seemed a step behind. All told, the Thunder fell, 101-88, to a Nuggets team that has been struggling.
Oh yeah, that's right. Russell Westbrook isn't on the court.
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More Thunder reads
Watching OKC play sans Westbrook shows how volatile the team can be on any given night. This is partially to be expected, as a still-young team reliant on two phenomenal offensive talents is down one man. However, when Westbrook is substituted for Reggie Jackson, the law of diminishing returns sets in. At times, Jackson is capable of being a Westbrook clone, darting to the rim, penetrating and kicking and even being a sufficient spot-up shooter.
But Jackson cannot replicate Westbrook's chaos.
Chaos is what makes the entire opposing team pay extra attention to the moves of Westbrook. All eyes are on him, so teammates can get open shots, even Durant. Jackson can't go 1-on-3 like Westbrook can on a fast break, seemingly creating a momentum with a sliver of opportunity. This is Westbrook's gift.
In some ways, Westbrook's absence has amplified the case for Kevin Durant's MVP candidacy. Since Westbrook's departure from the lineup, Durant's box score output has been absurd, posting a 34.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his last eight games. To see Durant not only score at will at times, but take on the additional responsibilities during the regular season without Westbrook when opponents are completely keyed onto him feels almost fun to witness.
But missing Westbrook on this team is like the loose nut and bolt on the rickety Jamaican bobsled in Cool Runnings. Things might look good beneath the surface, and it might even ride well for awhile. But over time, the bobsled is going to come apart.
OKC's team is squarely focused on a championship, but it's not built like one in the traditional sense. The Thunder lean heavily on a blend of young players and veterans who are only good at one or two things at best. They have moments of brilliance, and when paired against second units, they thrive. But the simple shift of Jackson in the starting lineup throws the chemistry out of whack.
The obvious focus also shifts back to the head coach. Scott Brooks hasn't shown the ability to adjust when things go bad, both with Westbrook and anything else that disrupts their core. (This goes back to the 2011 NBA Finals, when Brooks refused to go small and kept Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup versus Miami). Some people clamor for Brooks to find really creative ways to manufacture scores, but he doesn't need to think too hard. Simpler options are available: Post-ups for Durant, screen and rolls with Durant and Serge Ibaka, etc.
Watching this version of OKC play on a regular basis feels like the Kobe Bryant 'Hero Ball' era for the Lakers in 2005-06. Seeing Durant have to go to the well for every trick in his large book (you notice the amount of rip through moves he's brought back?) is appreciated for some connoisseurs of the game, but it's taxing and laborious for the Thunder. It's frustrating watching KD being frustrated. A confused Ibaka makes an uncomfortable sight. Watching 238-year-old Derek Fisher continually be the best spot-up shooter on the team outside of KD is among the worst things ever in life.
Of course, Oklahoma City should still take their time with Westbrook. If that means he doesn't play until a few weeks before the playoffs, I'd be OK with that. The world needs a full strength Westbrook on the center stage.
But it'd be nice to see OKC develop beyond Westbrook. A slight shift in scheme. A personnel move. Maybe even less pouting from KD? And it'd also be nice if those folks that suggested Durant was better off without Westbrook step forward and admit they were wrong.
Whatever it is, it still won't quell my sadness. I miss Russell Westbrook. #0appreciation.
Happy Hour drink recommendation: The Emerald. You want a Manhattan like OKC fans want a Westbrook. Yet you'll go to the bar and
they'll tell you that the Manhattan has knee issues all of your wannabe cool friends will order the Manhattan ahead of you. Bastards. There is no replacement for the Manhattan, but order the Emerald with confidence. It's the same thing, except with Irish Whiskey. Enjoy the mellowness and look both ways before you cross the street. TGIF.