OKLAHOMA CITY — When the team has a roster that’s pretty much set, experience and a proven record of winning, the preseason is a chance to do some evaluating.
So here it goes:
Kevin Durant is still good.
OK, no news there, but what Tuesday night against the Nuggets showed was Durant is good enough to carry a team, this Oklahoma City team, by himself.
And yes, he’s gonna have to do it for a good portion of this season, so might as well get some run doing it now during the preseason.
In 22 minutes, Durant scored 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting. He had six rebounds and four assists and if Denver’s Anthony Randolph tries to guard him in the regular season anything like he did Tuesday in Oklahoma City, Durant will score 80 points.
Durant didn’t play after the 5:06 mark of the third quarter, and rightfully so. It’s time to save his legs. If he doesn’t play another minute of the exhibition schedule, that would be too much, and while he’d never admit it, this season is going to come down to how much Durant can do.
It’s been a lot in the past half-decade, but in the playoffs last year against Memphis, it wasn’t enough. Durant faltered in the last few minutes of the last four games and the Thunder lost them all. That’s what happens when Russell Westbrook isn’t available and no one else can be counted on with any real regularity.
So, yes, coach Scott Brooks is – he has to be, right? – using the preseason desperately trying to figure out who will play, what rotations and lineups to use and who will be the No. 2 to Durant.
And Durant does have help. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are good complements, but this preseason hasn’t been the best for uncovering any truths about Jeremy Lamb or Steven Adams. Not yet, anyway.
But you have to wonder if the dialogue behind closed doors is about how much the Thunder will let Durant loose. Play him 45-plus minutes and hope for the best until Westbrook returns, or limit his legs in case Westbrook doesn’t come back as soon as projected?
We’ve seen Durant do it before and we saw it again Tuesday. And not to take too much from a preseason game, but once again Durant didn’t have much consistent help. Durant made four-of-eight 3-pointers. The rest of the team went one-of-nine.
Lamb, who has to be treating the preseason as an open audition for extended playing time, has not been good. Lamb went 3-for-12 Tuesday. He’s nine-for-33 in the preseason.
“I’ve just got to go back to the drawing board,” Lamb said. “Trust in all the work.”
Now we’ll see if Brooks has the same trust Lamb does. Outside of Durant, the Thunder are just 5-for-41 on 3-pointers through three preseason games.
“We got better tonight,” Brooks said, talking defense and team chemistry and all the kind of things coaches say because they believe them. But what about the shooting? What about the help for Durant?
“We’re not pushing the panic button after three preseason games,” Brooks said. “We have guys, I believe in their shooting ability. We’re going to keep working on it.”
And Durant will have to keep working, too. The question will be how many minutes and how much pressure he’ll put on himself to carry the team.
“I think that’s manufactured through the media,” Brooks said of what pressures Durant may or may not feel. “The pressure is to play for your teammates every night. He does that every single night and I could not be more proud of him.”
Durant may not just be feeling the pressure to play for his teammates. He’s going to have to score for them, too.