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A Work In Progress: Kevin Durant Struggles In Russell Westbrook’s Return

In the past, the Oklahoma City Thunder have struggled without Russell Westbrook in their lineup, which doesn’t come as a huge surprise seeing as he’s a top five player in the league when healthy. However, ever since he went under the knife again before the New Year, the Thunder have been one of the NBA’s hottest teams, posting a 20-8 record over a two month period which has helped hold their position at the top of a crowded Western Conference.

While it has taken a team effort to make it this far, there is no doubt that the main reason they have been so successful since that dreary night in New York is because of Kevin Durant. In the 26 games Westbrook missed, KD averaged an obscene 35.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks. If the season were to end today, very few would argue against him taking home the Most Valuable Player award.

He has been that good.

With the Playoffs just around the corner, the Thunder are in a good position right now. Role players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Derek Fisher have all had some good burn without Westbrook around. Serge Ibaka has taken on a bigger role and done a good job at it, posting career-highs in points and rebounds per game. Reggie Jackson did a solid job filling in for his All-Star teammate and can now go back to the role he was more suited for, only this time with even more confidence than before. And with 26 games remaining on the schedule, they can iron out the final creases before making a deep Playoff run now that Russell Westbrook is healthy and back in uniform.

On Thursday night against the Miami Heat, he played in his first game since December 25th and in 23 minutes, he scored 16 points and pulled down five rebounds. However, the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat by a final score of 103-81 – their largest home loss since 2009.

While it’s nice to have Westbrook back, there wasn’t much good for the Thunder to take away from this game. They committed a whole lot of turnovers and didn’t look like the powerhouse they’ve been for most of this year. But the most worrying thing was that Kevin Durant looked out of sync for most of the night and struggled when sharing the court with Westbrook.

Durant did score 28 points against the Heat, but he shot just 10-for-22 from the field and 7-for-10 from the charity stripe, both well below his season averages. He also committed five turnovers and assisted on just three baskets. While he clearly had an off night, a lot of credit has to be given to the Heat’s defense. Despite being a very old man, Shane Battier did a fantastic job sticking with Durant all night long, forcing him into taking tough shots – according to NBA.com, 17 of Durant’s 22 shot-attempts were contested. (For what it’s worth, LeBron took just six contested shots en route to his dominating 33-point performance). And when Durant did happen to get by Battier, the rest of the Heat made his life living hell by crowding the paint, as you can see in the image below.

But let’s talk more about this possession. What is surprising is that with nine seconds left on the shot-clock, Durant opted to take a contested shot instead of dishing it out to Perry Jones III or Reggie Jackson, who were both wide open in the corners. Scott Brooks will probably live with Durant taking that since he’s so close to the basket, but he did force a handful of shots on this night in particular. The reason? Well, over the last few months, Durant has had the ball in his hands for the entire game. While Reggie Jackson filled in for Westbrook at the point, it was often Durant who would bring the ball up and make a play. However, with Westbrook back, he’s forced to return to his former role as a more traditional small forward. Last night, that resulted in him getting less touches and tougher looks in half-court sets, so when he did get a chance to put it up like in the possession just discussed, he didn’t hesitate.

To illustrate my point, here are some clips of Durant missing shots and committing turnovers. What you’ll notice is that Durant’s opportunities to score were limited because he’d often catch the ball at the top of the key when the Heat’s defense was already set.

It wasn’t all bad for Durant, though. After all, he still scored 28 points and sparked a few runs along the way that brought the Oklahoma City Thunder within striking distance of winning the game, like in the last four minutes of the third quarter when his nine points helped cut the Thunder’s deficit from 20 points to 11. Interestingly enough, Westbrook wasn’t in the game during that run. Instead, Durant had Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeremy Lamb and Serge Ibaka on his side, leaving it up to him to be the primary ball handler.

With the ball in his hands, Durant is able to attack the defense before they set up which allows him to take better advantage of his speed, size and shot-making ability. In other words, he isn’t left on an island having to play one-on-five. As you’ll see in the next video, he looked a lot more comfortable bringing the ball up himself and it usually led to good looks for him or his teammates.

Russell Westbrook has always been a high usage player. He doesn’t always take the best shots, but the energy he plays with cannot be replaced by anyone on this Thunder squad. To add to that, he’s a proven scorer and can impact the game in a variety of ways. The Thunder aren’t better without him in the lineup. Saying that is outrageous. Last night’s game wasn’t a good example of that, but it simply isn’t true.

However, it is going to take them some time to figure things out again.

Over the last two seasons, Durant has struggled most when Westbrook has been out with injury. In a five game series against the Memphis Grizzlies last post-season, he shot just 42.1 percent from the field and failed to lead the Thunder to the Conference Finals. In the first two games Westbrook missed to start this season, Durant averaged 27.5 points and shot just 37.1 percent from the floor. (Small sample size, but still). The good news for Oklahoma is that he seems to have figured out how to put the team on his back when Westbrook can’t play. But in the midst of all that, he’s bumped his usage rate to a career-high, as well as his shot-attempts per game.

Durant isn’t the same player he was six months ago and he shouldn’t have dial back his game to make things easier on Westbrook. He’s undoubtably the second best player in the league right now and his recent run has shown that he’s capable of Godly things. Maybe that means Westbrook has to play more off the ball and Durant should take over as the primary ball handler on most occasions. Or maybe it’s a matter of running better plays to get Durant open in his sweet spots when the defense does set up in the half-court. Whatever it is, that’s up to Scott Brooks and his coaching staff to figure out.

But there’s no reason to be concerned. This was just one game. Durant and Westbrook have shown us hundreds of times that they can get the best out of each other. And if they want to make it all the way to the Finals, both of them will have to be at the top of their game. They’ve just a got a few things to work on now, that’s all.

Scott Rafferty