What the Oklahoma City Thunder feared has been confirmed. Kevin Durant’s season is over as he prepares to have bone graft surgery next week to treat a fracture in his right foot.
While playing without Durant to begin the season, that might have prompted wait-until-next-year mentality for the Thunder, but the latest absence of the reigning NBA MVP has been at least somewhat easier to stomach.
The difference has been a healthy Russell Westbrook, and a day after learning Durant’s fate, the team’s latest MVP candidate will try to continue carrying the load in Saturday night’s visit to the Utah Jazz.
Durant missed the first 17 games of the season and the Thunder (41-31) went 5-12, but 14 of those games also came with Westbrook out. This time around, they’re 12-6 without Durant and have a three-game lead over New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City’s reliance on Westbrook was on display in Wednesday’s 130-91 loss in San Antonio as the guard was held to 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds while going 5 of 16 from the field. He’s played in 17 of the 18 games without Durant and averaged 30.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 11.1 assists.
Enes Kanter had 16 points and 10 rebounds for a seventh straight double-double, and the center is averaging 21.4 points and 13.4 rebounds in that time. That could make for an interesting matchup with Utah center Rudy Gobert, who’s averaging 10.7 points and 14.3 rebounds in his last 18 games.
The Spurs scored 71 points in the first half, the most the Thunder have allowed in any half. The 40.0-percent shooting mark was also their worst in 14 games.
"It was a tough night on both ends of the floor," said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who is also operating without Serge Ibaka. "We have to get better. We have to regroup and bounce back. This is definitely not a night to remember, but it is one to get better from and we will."
There’s a good chance that happens immediately. Oklahoma City has taken two of three in the series, though the loss came with both of its stars sidelined. It’s won seven of the last nine, and both losses came without Westbrook.
Additionally, the Jazz (31-41) are falling apart after an extended promising stretch. Friday’s 107-91 loss in Denver was their fourth straight after winning 14 of their previous 18. In that stretch, they never allowed more than 100 points and held opponents to an NBA-low 83.9 points on 39.8 percent.
In the last four, Utah has allowed three teams to top 100 points.
"Defensively, we just weren’t as good as we’ve been," said Gordon Hayward after scoring a game-high 24 points.
The Jazz have allowed 102.8 points and shooting marks of 47.3 percent and 45.5 percent from 3-point range during the skid.
That’s an area the Thunder have been improving lately while shooting 39.1 percent in the last nine games. They entered that stretch hitting 32.7 percent.
"We’ve been able to knock down shots from the perimeter," Brooks told the team’s official website. "Threes have been big for us lately. Our offense has been really good other than last game. When teams collapse, you have to be able to kick out to shooters. A lot of teams will do that with Russ. If you don’t get there early, he’s going to get to the rim. If you put two on him out high, our bigs do a good job of rolling, catching and finishing."