With Kevin Durant expected to be sidelined for an extended period, all eyes will be on Russell Westbrook in his opportunity to be the undisputed leader of the banged-up Oklahoma City Thunder.
There’s no such adversity in Portland, where the rising Trail Blazers will have their two stars ready to go in the opener.
As the visiting Thunder try to adjust without the reigning MVP, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard look to help the Blazers build on their deepest playoff run in 14 years Wednesday night.
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Oklahoma City (59-23) will have to overcome an injury to one of the NBA’s best players as it looks to move past a six-game loss to eventual champion San Antonio in the Western Conference finals.
Durant averaged a league-high and career-best 32.0 points to go along with 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists last season, but the five-time All-Star underwent surgery Oct. 16 to fix a bone fracture in his right foot.
Now Westbrook is expected to be the focal point as the Thunder begin a season they hope results in their fourth trip to the conference finals over the past five years and second NBA Finals appearance in the last four.
”We are close," coach Scott Brooks said. "We’ve been close for a few years now. A lot of teams would love to be in this position. It’s a very competitive league.”
With several others also nursing injuries, Westbrook will likely have to stay healthy to keep Oklahoma City from falling behind early in the race for a top seed.
The three-time All-Star point guard averaged 21.8 points – his fewest in four years – in just 46 games last season due to a pair of right knee surgeries. He missed the last three meetings with the Blazers.
Reggie Jackson, who was moved into the starting lineup alongside Westbrook during the conference finals, is out with an ankle injury, while fellow guard Jeremy Lamb could be sidelined for a while because of a back injury.
Anthony Morrow (sprained MCL), Mitch McGary (broken foot) and Perry Jones (knee) are also hurting. Serge Ibaka, a three-time All-Defensive first teamer, could help carry the load after averaging a career-high 15.1 points.
Westbrook, who averaged 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds in the playoffs, insists his role isn’t going to change.
”Just constantly do what I need to do to help us win games,” he said. ”Find a way for guys to step up and play together.”
The Blazers, meanwhile, welcome back the starting five of Aldridge, Lillard, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews from a club that won 54 games before advancing out of the first round for the first time since 2000.
They also added center Chris Kaman and guard Steve Blake to a bench that was the NBA’s lowest-scoring (24.7 points per game) last season.
”I think we can be good – we can be really, really good,” Matthews said. ”I think we deserve to be talked (about) as contenders in the West. I really believe that.”
Aldridge averaged career highs of 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds, joining Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins as the only players to finish in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding. He upped his scoring output to 26.1 points per game in the playoffs.
Aldridge also put up 26.0 points and 13.8 rebounds per game while helping his club split four meetings with the Thunder.
Lillard averaged a career-high 20.7 points and ranked third with 2.7 3-pointers per game before hitting a memorable first-round series-clinching 3 at the buzzer in Game 6 against Houston.
Coach Terry Stotts, however, believes his club has to improve at the other end after allowing 102.8 points per game.
”We need to be a better defensive team. We need to realize what made us a good offensive team and stick with that,” said Stotts, entering his third year with Portland. ”After that, you just play the games.”
The Blazers have dropped nine of 11 matchups with the Thunder, including five of six at home.