Can Durant carry the Thunder alone?
by Sean Highkin, USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Durant has been stellar through three games in the Western Conference semifinals. When Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in the first round of the playoffs, Durant was tasked with leading the Oklahoma City Thunder by himself for the first time in five seasons. So far, he has played magnificently, but it’s becoming clear that outstanding play from Durant alone is not going to be enough to lead the Thunder to a second straight Western Conference title.
Without a second dependable scorer, Oklahoma City’s offense looks broken, disjointed and one-dimensional. It recalls LeBron James’ last several years in Cleveland, when he dragged several mediocre Cavaliers teams deep into the playoffs almost singlehandedly.
Although the trade was defensible at the time, the injury to Westbrook has made it clear how crucial James Harden was to Oklahoma City’s success. Kevin Martin has functioned as a fine replacement sixth man this season, but he isn’t nearly the playmaker or finisher Harden was. With Westbrook out, Harden would have been able to slide seamlessly into the Thunder’s starting lineup and give Durant a second scoring weapon to share the workload.
Instead, Scott Brooks is trotting out a crunch-time backcourt of second-year guard Reggie Jackson and 38-year-old Derek Fisher. Each player has had big moments: Jackson had 16 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday’s 87-81 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Fisher hit a game-tying three-pointer. But neither is nearly the consistent scoring threat of Westbrook, someone defenses must constantly plan for.
The player Thunder GM Sam Presti chose to keep over Harden, Serge Ibaka, has had a disappointing postseason. While he improved greatly at both ends of the floor and has finally blossomed into the inside force the Thunder hoped he’d become when they gave him a four-year, $48 million extension, he has lacked confidence in the playoffs. On Saturday, he scored 13 points on 17 shots and missed two dunks.
Durant is the second-best player in the world, and is impossible to guard when he starts to take a game over. However, with Memphis’ defense looking as strong as ever, it would make his … [For more on Playoff Putbacks: Can Kevin Durant carry the Thunder alone?, click here.]