By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
POSTED: Oct 16, 2013 8:17 AM ET
With Kevin Durant at the helm, the Thunder remain a legit contender for a Finals berth.
OKLAHOMA CITY — With or without Russell Westbrook for the first four to six weeks of the regular season, it's the last six weeks of the postseason that will ultimately define this season's Oklahoma City Thunder.
That's where this franchise sits six seasons after bottoming out in Seattle and packing up. The expectation for the All-NBA tandem of Kevin Durant and Westbrook, regardless of circumstance, is championship or bust.
Skepticism already abounds outside of OKC about whether the dynamic duo has a supporting cast capable of returning the Thunder to The Finals. Fondly remembered third wheel James Harden has his own championship aspirations in Houston, and last season's Harden replacement, Kevin Martin, is now in Minnesota. Young (and mostly unproven) in-house talent will be counted upon to get the job done.
That Westbrook will miss more time than expected following a second unexpected surgery to his right knee in early October only offers more ammunition for doubters who saw Durant get swarmed as a Westbrook-less squad was ousted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the West semifinals last season.
GameTime: Russell Westbrook
"To be honest, it's not about that. It's growing from where we're at now," Durant said. "Last year's over, we can't go back to it, we can't change anything. All we've go to do is focus on each and every day how we're going to move forward more than anything."
That task is made tougher by Westbrook's prolonged absence, but it shouldn't be a season-killer. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti suggested that Westbrook will join a better team when he returns because of the experience gained by players such as Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
Those the two youngsters, even with a healthy Westbrook, were already squarely in the skeptics' crosshairs. Jackson won the backup job behind Westbrook at midseason and averaged 14.2 minutes a game. After Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee during the Game 2 of the first round against Houston, Jackson became a starter and more than doubled his regular-season minutes for the rest of the playoffs. He played well, but made crunch-time errors against the Grizzlies.
Lamb, a long-armed, 6-foot-5 second-year shooting guard acquired in the Harden trade prior to last season, did not crack the rotation. With Martin's departure, the sixth-man slot is wide open and Lamb, along with Jackson, is going to be relied upon to deliver a hot hand off the bench.
"I personally think since James has left, everybody thinks somebody needs to fill that slot; we need a player for that slot, we need somebody for that slot," Westbrook said. "The slot doesn't have to be filled. We have a great team and if everybody does their job and does their role we should be all right."
This remains a tight and mostly unchanged crew with Thabo Sefolosha starting at shooting guard, power forward Serge Ibaka improving at both ends and center Kendrick Perkins vowing to raise his game after a disappointing postseason. Steady reserve Nick Collison joins Jackson, Lamb, veteran point guard Derek Fisher, free-agent forward Ryan Gomes and 7-foot rookie Steven Adams among the reserves.
And for all the talk about the Thunder's questionable depth, there isn't another team in the league that boasts two top-10 players in the league -- that is unless you still consider Dwyane Wade fit for that company. We know Durant does not.
As long as Durant and Westbrook are on the floor, OKC's title hopes are intact. They led the Thunder to 60 wins last season and OKC has managed to build a defense nearly as ferocious as its offense. The Thunder averaged 105.7 points a game last season and allowed 96.5 ppg, the largest point differential in the league. They ranked first in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating, the only team in the top five in both categories.
"Simple," Durant said when asked about his team's goals. "Just to get better every single day. That's all we can ask for, that's all we can really control. I like the progress of individuals, how everybody came back and made their games better. I'm excited for the season. I'm excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I'm excited for the opportunity I'm going to get as a leader, to step into a different phase as a leader and just see what happens."
For the first four to six weeks at least, whatever happens will occur without Westbrook. His streak of 394 consecutive games is over and OKC's only track record without him is last season's playoffs. They struggled to find offense beyond Durant and went 4-5.
"We're not an excuse organization," seventh-year Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I thought our guys did a lot of growing up, including myself [last season]. We all felt like we were going to come back better basketball players and I feel my staff and myself are going to be a better staff."
1. Serge Ibaka can become the first player to lead the league in blocked shots in three consecutive seasons as well as average more than 3.0 bpg in three consecutive seasons since Marcus Camby did it from 2006-08. Ibaka said he hopes to make it four years in a row. "I'm proud about that," he said. "Three years in a row is not easy." Ibaka's career-high was 3.65 bpg in 2011-12. He dropped to 3.03 last season. If he can average 4.0 bpg he would become the first to do so since Dikembe Mutombo (4.49) in 1995-96.
2. OKC has always been a high turnover team, typically finishing in the bottom seven of the league, and part of the at is because of how aggressively they push the ball. That's not going to change, but coach Scott Brooks is putting more emphasis on taking care of the ball. Point guard Russell Westbrook has talked about being a smarter player this season which could yield better decisions. Speedy Reggie Jackson will start at point guard with Westbrook hurt. He'll need to find a balance to play with more control to better avoid unforced turnovers.
3. The Thunder won't weigh down second-year guard Jeremy Lamb with responsibility, but he will be counted upon to shoot the rock, and that's means knocking down open jumpers, which he will get in this offense. Westbrook's initial absence puts more of a spotlight on the 6-foot-5 guard who only took 68 shots in 23 games last season.
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