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Behind hard-charging Russell Westbrook, Thunder start to enter new era

OKC is 4-0 thanks to a well-thought out roster thriving behind its star point guard

Scott Howard-Cooper

The convenience of the moment is that Russell Westbrook is playing above the clouds in this week of all weeks, stacking up triple-doubles and leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to an undefeated start. And so, yes, the start to 2016-17 must be one big index-finger poke into Kevin Durant’s chest. The timing just works out too well.

Except then there is the reality. Not the part about Westbrook’s sky-high game, as this kind of production should have come with its own flight number. But there’s the rest of the story.

This is no pointed statement from Westbrook. He has the same ferocious intensity and combustible game as before, with the only difference being that he isn’t sharing the numbers with another offensive force any more. And, in the real important indicator, this is the Thunder with the same possibilities as before they charged into the new season with three consecutive victories while scoring at least 103 points in each.

The obvious disclaimer is that those wins came against the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. And the Thunder needed overtime to beat Phoenix in OKC as the Suns were on the second night of a back-to-back.

Then came a credibility boost with Wednesday’s 85-83 road win against the undefeated LA Clippers. That win sends the Thunder into the reunion against Durant and the Warriors tonight (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at 4-0 amid the other impressive statement: Losing a future Hall of Famer in his prime without compensation is an insurmountable blow in the short term for a team with championship aspirations, yet this has been the best outcome possible once they were forced to swallow hard.

While the focus in Oakland will understandably be on the emotions of the Durant-Westbrook breakup, KD in his new home and how the Warriors are adapting to a major lineup shift, the subplot of the Thunder maneuvering around the crater in the middle of the locker room is compelling on its own. This is the organization, after all, that went from Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to Durant bolting for the exits in about five weeks, the franchise that generates the kind of local passion most teams can only dream about. The recovery matters.

The emotional portion came quickly. Westbrook, a year away from his own free agency and able to give all Oklahoma City an ulcer about his looming free agency, signed an extension in August. His reported three-year, $86 million deal gave a team that needed stability and talent both of those things.

Acquiring Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis for Serge Ibaka on draft night — before Durant’s gut punch — also gave OKC better depth and greater long-term possibilities in case KD did leave. Ibaka might have peaked while Oladipo, able to initiate the offense at times and play off the ball, would provide a scoring punch and be a good fit alongside Westbrook in the backcourt. Dealing away Ibaka’s rim protection and shooting range was a risk, but Steven Adams was fas improving and Sabonis was a nice prospect with a chance to contribute.

This week, the Thunder flipped Ilyasova’s perimeter game and a heavily protected first-round pick for athletic Philadelphia 76ers forward Jerami Grant. They also locked up Adams and Oladipo with extensions to their rookie contracts. While Ilyasova-Grant was nibbling at the edges and a tweak to the rotation, getting new deals for the two starters was a good move basketball wise, especially as Adams embarks on a very bright future. Even at the very moment Durant is staring back, it feels like Oklahoma City has solid ground again.

Westbrook is a superstar and Adams has a chance to be very good, another direct hit in the Draft for GM Sam Presti. Enes Kanter was one of the best sixth men last season. Westbrook at point guard, Oladipo at shooting guard, Andre Roberson at small forward, Sabonis at power forward, Adams at center and Kanter, Grant, Kyle Singler and Cameron Payne off the bench is a roster that can make the playoffs. Not with the same high ceiling as before, but as the best possible followup after spending July picking their heart up off the cement.

That part doesn’t change with anything that happens Thursday night in Oakland, or on Feb. 11 (when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time) or through the hours that have already been spent dissecting the KD-Westbrook relationship. It might be a little awkward inside Oracle Arena, but it is part of moving on. The Thunder have done just that.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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