Just a few weeks ago, it seemed as if the world was collectively blasting Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for their performances without Russell Westbrook. There is no doubt they were playing inconsistently, but what I saw was a competitive team who were missing an important piece to their puzzle.
Now, OKC finds themselves on a three-game winning streak behind the amazing play of Durant and the rise of key players like Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
Through their recent turmoil, the Thunder has found a way to produce a winning record while shaking off the haters who failed to see the positivity while they struggled early without Westbrook. Those same doubters are now scrambling around in attempt to hide their faces while OKC continues to improve. At this point, it would be preposterous for anyone to have Durant ranked below LeBron, or any other player, in the MVP rankings.
In their latest home win against an improved Sacramento Kings team, the Thunder were firing on all cylinders in their 108-93 victory. They have played so well as of late that you would not even know they were without a star player.
Most of that credit goes to Durant, but the impact of the role players has also played a major factor. Ibaka has strung together three straight 20-points games for the first time all season. In fact, he failed to do so in back-to-games all year, and had only two games over 20 points prior to the last three. It is evident that he is embracing the challenge of becoming a bigger factor on a nightly basis for the Thunder.
Westbrook makes it a lot easier for Ibaka to operate. There is much less pressure on him when Westbrook and Durant are on the floor. It is much easier for him to get open for a jump shot. Lately, he has found a way to be open and hit those shots consistently due to the Durant’s impact, and the attention that Jackson and Lamb demand as well.
Jackson had a bad shooting night, going 4-of-16 from the field with 16 points, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has been more productive over the past few weeks. People began to question his abilities after he struggled to get it going in his first few starts. Most of that could be attributed to tough losses because he is a younger player that relies on the confidence that comes with winning games. It is no surprise that his play has improved now that the Thunder are winning more games without Westbrook.
OKC has found a separate identity than they have when Westbrook is healthy. When he is healthy, the Thunder know what they have to do in order to maximize on their talents. Without him, they were missing a solid game plan and depending solely on Durant’s abilities. They discovered a need to slow it down and play to the skills of the players whose roles increased with Westbrook out.
That meant finding ways to get their half-court offense in place, rather than looking to attack early in the shot clock. You could say that the Thunder are comfortable playing two separate styles of offense, which is not easy for any team to do.
OKC has impressed many people this week, beating the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors en route to their current three-game winning streak. They have a chance to sell themselves even more in their next game on Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers. To their advantage, this game is at home.
Still, OKC knows whom they are up against, already losing twice to this season to this Blazers team. This will be the most important game for OKC as Westbrook continues to recover. A loss will mean that they have more work to do, but a win will show how far they have come and where they are headed as a team.