Thunder will be a title contender as long as Russell Westbrook's knee holds up

Oklahoma City knows what it’s like to play without its All-Star guard. And even though the Thunder has Kevin Durant playing out of his mind, it would still be tough to win a championship without Westbrook.
by Berry Tramel Published: March 23, 2014


photo - Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (0) drives past Houston's Patrick Beverley (2) during the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets at the  Chesapeake Energy Arena  in Oklahoma City, Okla., Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (0) drives past Houston's Patrick Beverley (2) during the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla., Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

But there are other reasons to believe the Thunder might be better-suited this year. The Ancient Mariner, Derek Fisher, suddenly is playing like he’s 34, not 39. Reggie Jackson is better than he was a year ago, at least as a starting point guard. Jackson has been spotty since returning to his sixth man role, but he was playing lights out as Westbrook’s replacement and he did so again Friday night.

The Thunder is deeper than last season. Hasheem Thabeet was the backup center last season. Now he’s third string, and not because his skills have deteriorated. OKC drafted over Thabeet (Steven Adams).

Suddenly, Caron Butler has boarded ship to take the Kevin Martin role. Butler’s not the scorer Circle K is, but he’s a better all-around ballplayer. Plus Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson all have played a bunch of minutes, even if Butler has swiped playing time from all. That only makes the bench better. Not worse.

And we haven’t even reached the No. 1 reason the Thunder could better withstand a missing Westbrook. Kevin Durant is playing out of his mind. Has all season. With Westbrook or without, but even moreso without. It’s like Durant has added Captain America’s shield to Superman’s cape. Scoring more, shooting better, passing wonderfully.

We saw that Friday night. Westbrook exited with 7:37 left in the third quarter. Durant played the rest of the game. In those 291/2 minutes (the game went double overtime), Durant had 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting, with six rebounds and five assists.

With Durant, all things are possible. Except the NBA title. He’s going to need Westbrook for that.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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