With Westbrook Out, Thunder’s Success Will Start With Defense


VIDEO: Brent Barry and Dominique Wilkins discuss the impact of Westbrook’s injury on OKC

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 IbakaThabo 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.

15 Comments

  1. kyle says:

    Bad news for the Thunder. Rely to heavily on the 1-2 punch of Durant and Westbrook. Durant is a fantastic talent, best scorer in the league… yet to make players better around him on an elite level. Gonna have to grind it out until Westbrook comes back

  2. Lakers-Warriors-Suns says:

    Damn, I really wanted to see Westbrook at the All-Star Game. Good luck.

  3. OKC says:

    Are you serious roy? Overpaid Ibaka? The dude has been having 20/10 nights all season and has led the league in blocks the last 3 years… you have no idea what you are talking about. To further prove my point that you have no idea what you are talking about, no one will EVER take Perkins in a flat out trade unless they are getting something else great in return for having to pay Perk 8 million a year to get 2 points and 2 rebounds as a starter.

    What team has more than two players that demand a double team? I really can’t think of any… Not even in Miami where you have the big three, do they double team Bosh. Yeah no way the number 3 offense in the league and the 2nd best defense in the league will be able to go deep into the playoffs @_@ <—-Sarcasm.

  4. mariusv20 says:

    KD will have more minutes, more points so probably he’s getting the MVP trophy. Second, Adams should get more minutes and replace Perkins. Reggie Jackson can get buckets, not as much as Westbrook, but he can score. Same thing with Lamb. Next couple of games should be interesting to watch

  5. Roy says:

    They overpaid Ibaka absurdly heavily. He likely won’t develop into the offensive force they need to compete for a championship. They need to trade Perkins as well. Nobody on this team but Westbrook and Durant demands a double team. Can’t compete deep in the playoffs like that.

    • HereHereBeer says:

      Dude, pay attention. Ibaka is 24 and has developed offensively every season with his work ethic. His mid range is amazing these days. Guy is getting 14ppg and 9 rbd and 2.5 blocks as a developing young player, and this is playing with Westbrook (mostly) and Durant as primary scorers. Has been first team all defensive the last couple of seasons, and is getting 14ppg, how would you equate this to being overpaid. Add that he is nowhere near his ceiling and I’d tend to say it was an excellent signing.

  6. kenny says:

    maybe they will finaly amnesty Perkins to get the money to get a good pointgaurd to take Westbrooks place

  7. kenny says:

    last last poste I forgot to put Durant may not be screwed out of MVP

  8. kenny says:

    maybe if the Thunder can get first in the west without westbrook maybe they woun’t screw him out of MVP

  9. Chuck says:

    The key to OKC going forward is the continued development of Adams as he learns the intricacies and subtleties of the NBA. You see a kid, just 20 and with little competitive play before now, on the verge of becoming a force especially on defense. His insertion is worth 6 or 7 points over the plodding Perkins who once again singlehandedly allowed Charlotte back in the game with his turnovers. It is still early in the season, and the Thunder are becoming a defensive force, and it’s senior citizen is 25 year old Kevin Durant.

    • HereHereBeer says:

      Agreed, mostly. Love the look of young Steve. I think Lamb’s scoring production off the bench is vital as well. Perk, though he makes me shake my head a lot, is somehow essential to the team’s success – he gets few states but sets a tone and gives others confidence.

  10. okc2014 says:

    This article is so true that it makes me sad. Sniff. Sniff.

  11. No durability that’s why spurs are the greatest organization ever

    • HereHereBeer says:

      Please don’t post empty comments. Durability will be tested, and we’ll see in time if there is none… Take Wade out the Heat for a long stretch, take Parker out the Spurs for a long stretch and then check your durability. Westbrook has just started to hit his straps, and was looking at rising to another level – the guy is a beast and top ten player in the league, any team, and indeed, contender their #1 play-maker and central piece would have a hard time remaining a contender. I just hope he is fine when he comes back and we get back to contention for a title.

  12. realist says:

    wtffff ever one getting injured
    durant is next :(