What Does No KD Mean for OKC?
* Photo via USA Today
Kevin Durant is out again, this time for good. In what could be his second to last season in Oklahoma City, the loyal fans that love him only got to enjoy 27 games of Kevin Durrant. Holding a three game lead over New Orleans with ten games left for the 8th seed, two questions come to mind regarding the absence of OKC's star player for the remainder of the season: Can the Thunder still make the playoffs? and if they do, is there any hope for a playoff run?
The answer to the first question is more than likely going to be 'yes'. If the Thunder can stay on the pace they are now, winning the easier ones and pulling a few upsets, then they will be sitting comfortably at the 8th seed when the playoffs start. The two teams in the race behind the Thunder, New Orleans and Phoenix, have a harder schedule than the Thunder do these last ten games. The Thunder only have to play five teams in the next few weeks that are playoff bound, while the Phoenix Suns have to play seven. Unless there is a miracle surge by the Suns and a total collapse by the Thunder, then it's safe to say that the Suns are not a threat. On the other hand, a real possibility is New Orleans catching up on the Thunder. Now, OKC controls their own destiny, if they can win most of their upcoming games, they are in the playoffs. But what if they don't? New Orleans only plays five playoff bound teams in the upcoming weeks as well, and they have cupcake teams to play in-between: Minnesota twice, the Lakers, and the Kings. The Thunder already have a three game lead on New Orleans, so if New Orleans catches up, it's all on the Thunder. But OKC is going to win the games they are supposed to, and steal enough games from better teams to lock up their playoff spot.
So while Durant's absence isn't going to have a huge impact on if the Thunder make it into the playoffs, it did kill almost any hope OKC had left to make a deep playoff run. The Thunder are more than likely going to be facing the number one team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors. The struggle right now is to see the possibility of the Warriors not sweeping the Thunder at this point. While OKC has put up a fighting effort without Durant, going 12-6 since his last game in late February, they have been doing it while giving up an average 108 points per game. Letting Westbrook run loose and put on an MVP caliber performance is working for now, but that won't work against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Thunder can't just allow this series to turn into a track meet. Golden State has the best offense in the league, and a shootout isn't the way to beat them. Unfortunately, that might be the only tactic the Thunder have to use, but ultimately it will more than likely end up in a losing effort. Almost playing no defense, while playing a team that hasn't lost four games in a single month, is not a winning formula for the Thunder.
The only prayer that the Thunder have is that Serge Ibaka will be 100% ready to play once the playoffs start. One of the few players on the OKC roster that can resemble a synonym for 'Defense', if he can bounce back from his injury quick enough to join the lineup Game 1 against Golden State, then it's fair to say that the Thunder have the chance to pull the upset, or at least last 6-to-7 games. No offense to Russell Westbrook, he has been doing a phenomenal job trying to keep the OKC Thunder alive this last month without Durant. In games with Durant out, Westbrook has led the team to a 17-11 record without him. That 61% winning percentage isn't much of a step off of games that Durant has played this year, 18-9 for 66%. Westbrook has thrived more than any Thunder fan could have hoped for. If the MVP was given to the best player since Feb. 21, then Westbrook would be unanimous.
But without Durant, there is no compliment to Westbrook. When Durant was playing, Westbrook was the compliment to him. The Thunder aren't built to have a one-man show make their playoff run. Even Stephen Curry, the eventual MVP, has Klay Thompson averaging 21.7 PPG behind him. Losing Durant took away the 1-2 punch the Thunder had. Yes, Ibaka can score, and Enes Kanter has been doing a good job offensively since coming over from Utah, but it's just not going to be enough. As a team, as a whole, with Durant in the lineup, it's a great team. With Durant in the lineup, maybe the Thunder could win a shootout against the Warriors. But Durant won't be in the lineup, and this is what Thunder fans have feared all year long. The Thunder fans and players had to withstand many injuries this year, and the fact they are in the playoff race at all is a feat worth being proud of. But that's not what the players or fans want. They want to knock off the Warriors and show the NBA that they are still a threat without Durant. Who knows? With a healthy Ibaka, maybe the Thunder can contain the Warriors enough to be competitive and keep the games close. And in the playoffs, anything can happen in a close series, in a close game.