In place of Darnell Mayberry’s traditional postgame nuggets…
1. Westbrook’s absence - OKC could have won by 70, Kevin Durant could have dropped 80, Kendrick Perkins could have made eight three-pointers. Friday, December 27th was never going to turn out to be a good day for the Thunder. Not after the Russell Westbrook injury news broke in the late afternoon. No need for me to explain what kind of impact he has on the team. You’ve heard it plenty. You saw it in the playoffs last May. You saw it again in Charlotte on Friday night, despite the win. His loss is killer.
Durant on Westbrook: “It’s definitely a blow. It’s definitely frustrating. Basketball, I don’t care about that. But for somebody who loves the game so much and was having so much fun playing for his team. After being out so long and playing the best basketball of his career and for this to suddenly happen, I feel for him. That’s my brother, that’s all our brother in this locker room and we feel for him.”
Durant on the impact: “We know we have a guy who does so much for us. But we don’t want to overthink it or put too much pressure on ourselves. We just need to do it collectively. We’re not afraid to say that. I need Reggie Jackson, I need Serge Ibaka, I need Kendrick Perkins. I’m not afraid to say that. I need to lean on those guys.”
2. Defense - The Thunder is clearly a worse team without Westbrook. Not breaking any news here. But they’ll still win plenty of games. And that’s primarily because of a stingy defense. I wrote about that, and Durant, in my game recap (which you can read here). But the numbers speak for themselves. During this recent 21-game hot streak (19 wins), the Thunder has held opponents to 40.6 percent shooting. Only twice has a team shot better than 45 percent on them. Overall, OKC is second in the league in field goal percentage defense (41.8 percent, Indiana is first at 41.1). On Friday, Charlotte made just 30 of 80 shots against OKC. That’s how you can score 89 points — like the Thunder did, their second-lowest output this season — and still find a way to win.
3. Reliance on KD - Well, Mr. Durant, your MVP stage is set. With Westbrook out for an extended stretch, you’d figure Durant will take a good portion of the offensive load — in both scoring and playmaking — on his shoulders. And that should lead to bigger numbers. Which is just what happened in night #1 post-RW, with Durant dropping 34 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. He took 28 shots, a season-high, and played 40 minutes, his most in the past 14 games. Get used to it.
4. Durant’s heroics - Fourteen of Durant’s game-high 34 points came in the fourth quarter. He abused Anthony Tolliver down the stretch, flashing an array of drive-bys, stepbacks and pull-up jumpers. At one point, during a personal 8-2 run, Durant drilled a pair of monster threes, enticing a collective ‘Oooh’ throughout the building, then nailed a clutch 21-footer and finished it off with an unguardable pump fake, hesistation dribble and twisting layup. Moves a 6-foot-10 dude shouldn’t be able to make. He had the Charlotte fans frustrated, but mesmerized at the same time. Cam Newton, Steve Smith and a bunch of other Panthers were hopping out of their courtside seats after a couple of the buckets.
5. Charlotte - Surprisingly lively crowd in Charlotte, although that probably had plenty to do with it being Friday night with a big-name team in town. Doesn’t seem they get nearly that much support on a regular basis. But regardless, the atmosphere was enjoyable. And so was the town. After the game, the streets were packed. Probably helped that the Belk Bowl, between Cincinnati and North Carolina, is being played in Charlotte on Saturday. I saw plenty of Bearcat and Tar Heel fans. Including this rowdy character:
-Kendrick Perkins had a season-high 10 rebounds, plus some nice defense on Al Jefferson. Thabo Sefolosha had 12 points, including two huge game-sealing free throws in the final seconds. A pair of solid games for the maligned starters.
-Serge Ibaka had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He was 4-of-4 in the first quarter, including some slick isolation moves, but the Thunder stopped going to him after that. Weird.
-Quiet night for Perry Jones: 10 minutes, no stats. But from the sounds of it, Scott Brooks plans to give him a consistent bump in playing time while Westbrook is sidelined.
-Josh McRoberts: Ugly hair, ugly jumper, decent player.
-Remember when the Pistons signed Ben Gordon to a five-year, $55 million deal. Oof. He had two points in 12 minutes off the Charlotte bench. He’s like their ninth man.
-Reggie Jackson’s past three games: 11-of-46 shooting (24 percent). Rough stretch. Thunder need him to bust out starting on Sunday because…
-…the Rockets are in town, kicking off an intriguing three-game homestand in OKC. The Blazers visit on Tuesday and the Nets come Thursday.