The Thunder have a plan, and it's working
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Trying to win games without Kevin Durant for up to eight weeks is a challenge, going at least four of those weeks without Russell Westbrook is a huge problem.
How do the Oklahoma City Thunder replace two players that combined to average over 50 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds last season? Well, they can't. But with Durant expected to miss six-to-eight weeks with a Jones fracture in his right foot and Westbrook gone at least a month with a broken hand, the Thunder had to find some way to win games.
Should Westbrook miss exactly one month following his surgery on Nov. 1, the Thunder will have gone 15 games without him and Durant in the lineup before Westbrook would in theory come back for the Dec. 2 game against the Pelicans. That's nearly 20 percent of the season with Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka trying to keep the team afloat pretty much on their own.
Durant could come back to play against the Knicks on Nov. 28, but that would be the best-case scenario of the six-to-eight weeks timeline. If Durant's recovery time takes the full eight weeks, it could potentially be up to 20 games the Thunder will have to go without the reigning MVP.
Playing basically a quarter of the season without your two best players together is a nail in the coffin for a team trying to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. So, is the Thunder's season lost just four games in? Can OKC remain competitive without the two players that make the engine run?
Thunder fans should look at the win against the Nuggets and remain optimistic. Without Westbrook, Durant, Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb and 21st overall pick Mitch McGary, the Thunder dressed just eight players and beat a fully healthy Denver squad. The Nuggets never held a lead in the game and at one point in the third quarter were trailing by 25 points.
How'd they do it?
With Sebastian Telfair and Andre Roberson the only two healthy guards for the Thunder, head coach Scott Brooks took the game to the paint. It couldn't have worked better against Denver because Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov aren't exactly rim protectors.
The Thunder went with an extremely big lineup. The 6-foot-7 Roberson was slotted at shooting guard and 6-foot-11 Perry Jones started on the frontcourt alongside Serge Ibaka, OKC's defacto best player, and bruiser Steven Adams. Jones and Ibaka each scored 23 and Adams chipped in 13 of his own. Off the bench, Kendrick Perkins scored 17 points in 19 minutes, easily the most astounding moment of the NBA season so far.
Ibaka was particularly impressive. Without Westbrook and Durant, he's thrust into the lead man role for an extended period of time when he has never been more than the third option his entire career. He shot 7-for-12 inside the three-point arc, and even showed some outside shooting ability. Most notable of his trio of threes was his last to put the Thunder up 91-85 with less than 2:30 left in the game.
As a team, Oklahoma City scored 46 points in the paint. Does that mean running the offense through the bigs is a sustainable plan for success? The results have been mixed.
The Brooklyn Nets had given up at least 40 points in the paint in all of their games this season before playing the Thunder, yet the return of Brook Lopez shut down the interior in the Thunder's 116-85 loss. The next test will be tonight against a Raptors team similarly weak defending the low post coming in.
Regardless, the Thunder will still have to take advantage of opponents they can abuse in the paint, as they wait for their perimeter players to get healthy. Jackson returned against the Nets and Lamb is due back any game now, while Morrow coming back later in the month will help the Thunder stretch the floor even more.
In the short term, the prospects are still good for the Thunder. After the Toronto game, four of their next five games come against the Kings, Bucks, Celtics and Pistons. Waiting for Westbrook and Durant to return from injury is slow torture for Thunder fans, but the schedule makes it a little more manageable.
It's far too early in the season to count the Thunder out. Even if the Durant and Westbrook injuries cause OKC to slip in the playoff seedings, as long as they are healthy it doesn't matter if they're a one seed or an eight seed.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo