HOUSTON — From general manager Sam Presti to coach Scott Brooks down to the equipment manager, the Thunder have made it abundantly clear that no single player on the roster can replace Russell Westbrook.
But that doesn’t mean one guy can’t be expected to do more.
In the first game of the Post-R.W. Era, Kevin Martin checked out early and was a major reason why Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City teammates ended up hanging by their fingernails onto a 104-101 Game 3 win.
Though he finished the night with a dozen points, Martin shot an abysmal 0-for-6 in the second half and did not score at all in the final 37 minutes of the game. That is hardly the kind of clutch performance the Thunder need from the player who first came into fill the gap of the departed James Harden and now is needed even more with Westbrook sidelined for the playoffs with a surgically repaired knee.
“Just missed some shots,” Martin said with a shrug. “That’s how I look at it. Hopefully next game, I can hit some shots in the second half, take more responsibility and try to get going early, taking some pressure off K.D.”
Martin definitely knows how to put the ball into the basket at the Toyota Center, having averaged more than 20 points per game in three seasons with the Rockets. But he has made just 11 of 35 shots in the series, rarely looking comfortable.
Like Harden, one of Martin’s strength is an ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. But he made just two trips to the stripe in Game 3 and none in the second half when OKC needed to stop the Rockets from charging back. He mostly hung around the perimeter playing passively.
“He scores better when he’s moving,” said Brooks. “We’ve got to keep him moving…Kevin is not somebody who can be very productive if he’s just waiting for the ball and for shots to come to him. He’s got to make things happen.”
Martin made plenty happen when he first arrived in OKC in the blockbuster deal for just four days before the start of the regular season. He averaged 15.9 points in November, but his scoring pace has dropped steadily with each passing month. That was all right when the Thunder were humming along and finishing with the best record in the Western Conference to claim the No. 1 seed.
But at the moment that Westbrook went under the knife, there was an immediate need for the nine-year veteran to pump up his offensive contributions so that Durant doesn’t have to score a career playoff high 41 points every night along with shouldering the primary ball-handling duties.
There’s no doubt that OKC can finish off the youthfully exuberant Rockets, either by sweep tonight or in a few more days, and advance. However, as the competition level rises in the ensuing rounds of the playoffs, there will be urgency to get more than an occasional blue light special from K-Mart.
“I know what they brought me here for,” said Martin. “So just continue to take shots and drive to the hole, take pressure off K.D., just be the scorer they need me to be.”
Now more than ever.