CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Thunder offense looked a bit slower, a bit more stagnant and a bit less explosive on Friday in Charlotte.
Not a surprise. Russell Westbrook is gone. And for an extended time, he won’t be back. So Oklahoma City, naturally, is a worse team.
But that doesn’t mean the Westbrook-less Thunder are a bad team. Far from it.
As shown in OKC’s 89-85 victory over the Bobcats, you can win plenty of games in this league with a pair of D’s — Kevin Durant and a lot of defense.
“Give our guys credit,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the win. “It was an emotional day, with Russell, but I thought we did a good job of handling that.”
From the tip, it started on the defensive end. Even while Durant, and everyone not named Serge Ibaka, struggled to make shots in the first half, the Thunder clamped down on the Bobcats.
At halftime, OKC was shooting an ugly 35 percent. Ibaka was 4-of-6 — everyone else was a combined 11-of-36.
But despite that, the Thunder held a six-point lead at the break. Charlotte, looking out of sorts, had eight turnovers and only 36 points on 36 percent shooting.
“I thought our defense was superb tonight,” Brooks said. “We did a good job of making them miss shots and not hoping they’d miss. That’s our mentality.”
And that’s what has been the key of this recent Thunder surge. OKC has won seven straight road games — a franchise record since the relocation from Seattle — and 19 of its last 21 games.
And during that 21-game streak, the Thunder is holding opponents to 40.6 percent shooting. No team shot better than 48 percent. All but two shot below 45 percent.
Dominance and consistency.
“It’s what we take pride in,” Brooks said. “We’re a team that can score, but we’re a defensive team … Even in our last loss against Toronto, I think they shot 35 percent.”
On Friday, the Bobcats finished at 37.5 percent, one of the lowest marks of this hot streak.
But the Thunder’s offense, which struggled throughout — shooting 41 percent — had difficulty pulling away.
That is, until Durant finally took over down the stretch.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Durant had 20 points. But it came on an inefficient 20 shots. He was also 0-of-3 from deep and an uncharacteristic 2-of-4 from the line.
But in the fourth, when his slumbering teammates needed him most, their star delivered. Durant went 6-of-8 in the final 12 minutes, scoring 14 of his game-high 34 points, to go along with 12 rebounds and six assists.
In the closing minutes, with Charlotte threatening and the crowd standing, Durant hit two backbreaking step back 3-pointers.
Charlotte had a chance late, missing a potential go-ahead three in the final seconds, but Durant’s flurry proved to be the difference.
“You can’t get frustrated because that’s what he does,” Charlotte’s Kemba Walker said. “I thought we did a great job making him take tough ones. Great players make great plays.”
For the foreseeable future, with Westbrook out, the Thunder will need plenty more of that from Durant.
But more times than not, both Durant and the stingy and consistent defense have proved they can deliver.