HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Scoring don’t come easy. Not without Russell Westbrook.
Friday’s bombshell that Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard needed a third surgery within nine months to repair more damage in his right knee hit his teammates hard.
“Obviously it was an emotional day with Russell,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Friday night after his shorthanded club beat the Charlotte Bobcats 89-85 to improve to 24-5. “But I thought we did a good job of handling that.”
The only other time this season the Thunder, averaging 106.3 ppg, failed to reach 90 points? The second game of the season and the last that Westbrook would sit out following his surprising second surgery in early October. Ever since, including a masterful Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden, Westbrook has been dynamite: 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.0 rpg.
A festering knee issue? A third surgery? Out through All-Star Weekend? Yeah, right.
Yet that’s the deal. The meniscus Westbrook tore in the first round of the playoffs when he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley isn’t going away nearly as quietly as the Thunder did in the second round without their dynamic second star.
The extended absence OKC expected at the beginning of the season is now here unexpectedly. The league’s scoring leader and MVP candidate Kevin Durant — who wowed Charlotte with 34 points (on a season-high 28 shot attempts), 12 rebounds and six assists — will again, just as he did during last year’s playoffs without Westbrook, attract the glare of the spotlight.
But to focus solely on Durant’s ability to carry the team over the next six weeks would be misguided. The Thunder’s success — or lack of it — will be defined at the end of the floor that rarely draws the headlines. While OKC will blind you with dazzling offense, it mostly goes unsaid how they’ll muzzle you with a quick-twitch defense. Only Indiana allows fewer points per 100 possessions. Only Indiana holds teams to a lower field-goal percentage than OKC’s 41.8 percent. The Thunder have been a top four defense for two seasons and top nine for three.
The Thunder’s ‘D’ might just be the league’s best dirty little secret.
“It’s what we take pride in, we’re a defensive team,” Brooks said. “We’re a team that can score, but we are a defensive team. We take pride in every possession. We take pride in stopping the man from scoring and contesting shots and rebounding. I thought our defense was superb [Friday]. We did a good job of making them miss shots, and not hoping that they miss. And that’s our mentality. Give our guys credit that they stepped up.”
OKC held the Bobcats to 37.5 percent shooting and outrebounded them 48-43. The upcoming competition delivers decidedly more sophisticated offenses with three of the Thunder’s next four games against Houston (Sunday), Portland (Tuesday) and Minnesota (Jan. 4). Westbrook could miss as many as 27 games.
No doubt the Thunder are better prepared now to soldier on without Westbrook than during the suddenness of last April and May when Durant tried unsuccessfully to shoulder everything, even through constant late-game double-teams. He’ll still naturally assume more of a do-it-all, triple-double Magic Johnson-type approach, but he can’t do it all. Reggie Jackson, who will again assume the starting point guard duties, is a much more confident player, although he had a rough start at Charlotte, and the bench is deeper.
Still, the realities of Friday’s initial game without Westbrook can’t be overlooked. Durant scored 34 points while Jackson, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb combined for 44.
This is drastic change. Over a six-week stretch, there’s simply no replacing Westbrook’s ferocious athleticism and attitude, his ability to discombobulate a defense and create easy scoring opportunities for himself and others. In the last two weeks he averaged 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.
In the nine games he missed during the playoffs, the Thunder averaged 95.3 ppg after averaging 105.7 ppg during the regular season. Against Memphis’s stifling defense, they scored more than 93 points once in the five games. This season OKC ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. In the three games Westbrook has not played — the first two of the season and a Nov. 24 game against Utah for extra rest — OKC scored 101, 81 and 95 points.
Scoring don’t come easy without Westbrook.
If the Thunder are going to maintain a top-four spot in the West until their indispensable playmaker returns, the defense will force a few more headlines.