Because even when Kevin Durant misses, it goes in. Because Reggie Jackson can make a couple clutch free throws. Because Durant can score 41 if that’s what it takes.
That’s why the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t need Russell Westbrook to beat the Houston Rockets.
Without their all-world point guard, who is out with a knee injury sustained in game two, the Thunder on Saturday went up 3-0 on the Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Durant took 30 shots, missing 17 of them. He scored 41 points and had 14 rebounds and four assists. And he made the biggest shot of the night, a 3-pointer that flew long, popped straight up into the air, danced on the rim and fell through, putting OKC up 100-99 with 36 seconds left.
With eight seconds left, Jackson – Westbrook’s replacement – went to the free-throw line to protect a one-point lead. He made both, putting the Thunder up 104-101, which was the final score.
It was weird without Westbrook.
“I didn’t feel the same,” Durant said. “And I knew I just had to give my all from here on out … every game is for him.”
So despite blowing all of a 26-point lead, on the road, the Thunder won without Westbrook. They’ll almost certainly advance to the conference semifinals, during which Durant will be asked to take a lot of shots, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to be a problem.
This was important to see, though, because it had never been seen before. By now you have heard Westbrook had never missed a game in his five-year NBA career, so there was no observable evidence he wasn’t the binding agent holding the whole Thunder thing together.
Saturday didn’t quite prove that wasn’t the case, and it didn’t prove the Thunder can win an NBA title without their All-Star point guard, but it did prove something most people already knew.
Kevin Durant can be about as good as you need him to be.
“Kevin has done a great job of being a playmaker all season long,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s an amazing scorer, and he sets up a lot of guys to get easy buckets.”
It was nice for Durant that he was being guarded by Francisco Garcia, who, bless his heart, did the best he could. The road to an NBA title will not be paved with Francisco Garcias, but it wasn’t even like Durant got hot. He was hot at first, and the Thunder got up by 26 points, and you would have thought OKC could have withstood a bit if a lull from Durant. Not so. Durant went cold, and as the Rockets were coming all the way back it started feeling like maybe these were the moments they were going to miss Westbrook’s playmaking. Westbrook can just haul off and do something awesome with the best of them and he’s certainly never been afraid to fail. The Thunder seemed to be missing that intoxicating recklessness. It wasn’t going to be coming from Fisher, and Jackson may be young, but he knows who he is. He knows better than to try a bunch of stuff he can’t do. He took six shots.
Kevin Martin can bail you out on offense from time to time, but Saturday wasn’t his night either. He went 3-for-11, scoring 12 points in 31 minutes.
So this was all Durant. Serge Ibaka had 17 points and 11 rebounds, but that’s an average night for him. The only Thunder player who raised his game Saturday night, the only one who did much of anything to make up for Westbrook’s absence was Durant. And it was all the Thunder needed.