Thunder good, but not great without Westbrook
It’s time to come to a sad and disappointing realization.
We’ve been spoiled, but that’s nothing you haven’t heard before. You already knew it because that’s what happens when you have two of the top five or 10 players in the league on one team. The expectation for greatness is a real thing because the greatness has been achieved.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have taken the Thunder to a Western Conference championship. The two have taken the Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference and the two are good enough to win an NBA title.
But one is not good enough. And the realization is when you — the Thunder, or any other team, for that matter — have just one elite player, your team can be good, but not great.
That’s what the Thunder are without Russell Westbrook. Good enough, but not good enough to be at the level people around Oklahoma City have come to expect. OKC got beat in the Finals against Miami because it couldn’t find a third source of consistency and now the Thunder is down to a single source.
OKC is 5-5 without Westbrook since he left the lineup after his Christmas Day triple-double. Reggie Jackson isn’t the same, Serge Ibaka is inconsistent. Derek Fisher is playing too many minutes. The only thing anyone can count on is Durant, whose production has gone up, yet the team’s production has dipped. It isn’t as good offensively and defensively isn’t as sound.
And now comes what could be considered the toughest stretch of the season. In the next six days, OKC plays at Houston, vs. Golden State, vs. Sacramento, vs. Portland and at San Antonio.
Even great teams would have issue with that kind of schedule. We’ll see what the Thunder do against it.
Here are three other things to think about as the Thunder start this run, with a game at Houston tonight.
1. Is Kevin Durant OK?
Perhaps the left wrist, which Durant injured Sunday at home against Milwaukee, was bothering him in Tuesday’s loss at Memphis.
In the final minute the Thunder had three offensive possessions. Durant didn’t attempt a shot. Instead he passed twice — once to Reggie Jackson who missed a running jumper, and once to Serge Ibaka, who missed an open 3-pointer. Both times Durant was dribbling left, on the injured wrist.
Durant He said he was fine after the game Tuesday, but that was physically. Will he be fine if he continues to not get enough offensive support?
2. Will we see a change with Reggie Jackson?
The person who has seemingly, in retrospect, been affected by the Westbrook injury the most is Jackson.
He was a great player off the bench but has struggled as a starter. Jackson has started 13 games and averaged 29.4 minutes in starts, shooting 41.7 percent. That percentage is 40 percent in the last 10 games, since Westbrook has been out.
As a bench player, Jackson has shot 46.6 percent in 24.5 minutes played. In the Thunder’s 10 losses this season, Jackson is shooting 37 percent.
Idea: Maybe the Thunder should consider bringing in Jackson off the bench, even now with Westbrook out. That would mean starting either Derek Fisher or the newly signed Royal Ivey, but it would also mean Jackson could get minutes in spots where he’s had more success. It would also free up Jackson from the burden of being a starter.
Hey, it’s not easy filling in for Westbrook. Everyone knows that. Some are better bench players. Some are made to be starters. Nothing wrong with that.
"We just keep encouraging him," Durant told The Oklahoman after Tuesday’s game. "He has to do a lot, man. He has to get everybody involved. He’s playing hard. It’s a team."
Jackson will be fine. He still managed 17 points and six rebounds against Memphis. He’ll be better when Westbrook returns.
3. Can Royal Ivey help?
At this point, why not? Anything to alleviate running Jackson and Derek Fisher into the ground. For that matter, anything to take some of the strain off of Durant.
Will Ivey come in and play 20 minutes per game? Hopefully not. He’s not that kind of player. But he could come in for 5-7 minutes, which would mean less pressure on Durant, who has been running the point guard spot in tough spots, including some in the final moments Tuesday against Memphis.
The Thunder signed Ivey to a 10-day contract this week. We know he’s not going to come in and take a bunch of bad shots. We know coach Scott Brooks trusts him. We know, because Ivey played two seasons in OKC. He knows the system and knows what’s expected.
No real reason to think he’s going to help the Thunder, but it can’t hurt, at this point. Right? Right?
Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK