OKLAHOMA CITY — If you’re looking for something positive about Kevin Durant being out at least a week with a strained left hamstring, there are two things to consider:
1) It’s only a week. At the minimum, it’s three games. If it’s the full 10 days before Durant is reevaluated and cleared, it will be five games.
“Thank God it’s nothing too serious for him,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ll reevaluate him in 7-10 days to see where he’s at, but for the most part it’s a blessing for Kevin that it’s not something that is really long term for him. He’ll work hard and he’ll get himself back and get himself healthy and pick up where he left off.”
Another silver lining: The combined record of the next five opponents? 11-30. The Thunder play the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks over the next nine days.
2) The Thunder at least have an idea of how they’re going to play without Durant. With him missing 55 games a season ago, the Thunder unfortunately were confronted with how they had to play without their former MVP. That included a whole lot — a whole lot — of Russell Westbrook, with him essentially trying to blend between being The Scorer and The Playmaker for everyone, at all times.
What about this time around? Will Westbrook need to shoulder a ridiculous load again to get the Thunder by?
“I think Russell needs to be who he is,” Donovan said. “Certainly having a guy with him like Kevin who certainly is a big-time proven player in this league, I think Russell has got the ability to give a lot of people confidence inside our team. And being a point and with the way he’s distributing the basketball, I think he’s in a position where he can make people around him better and make the game easier for people. So I’ve got confidence in him from that standpoint.”
Last season, with Durant off the floor, Westbrook’s percentage of possessions used skyrocketed to an obscene 40.1. He finished the season leading the league in scoring at 28.1 per game while still dishing out 8.6 assists a contest. And as everyone remembers, he turned into an absurd triple-double machine, putting up nine following the All-Star break.
This season, though, Westbrook is leading the league in assists at 10.9 per game. (While still averaging 25.8 points. He’s good.) However, 36 of Westbrook’s 86 assists this season have gone to Durant. That’s 4.5 of his 10.9 average per game going to Durant. So if he’s going to continue carrying that kind of heavy average of assists, he’s going to have to find someone else to step up. Because here’s the thing about assists: Someone has to make the shot after you pass the ball to him. And Kevin Durant is good at making shots.
Donovan said Thursday he doesn’t expect any one player to shoulder the load of Durant’s absence because, well, that’s impossible. You don’t replace a Kevin Durant in your lineup. You just hope to fill in the cracks a bit. Donovan said he’s still undecided about who will start in his place, with the candidates being Kyle Singler, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow, but whoever it is just has to do his job and let the rest of the team take care of making up for Durant.
“I think these guys all have a job to do. We’re a team,” Donovan said. “There’s going to be different guys that step up at different times. It’s not, like I said, one person trying to fill in for Kevin. Whoever starts in that spot there, it’s not his responsibility to be Kevin Durant.”
Well, that’s good. Because Kyle Singler’s Kevin Durant impression isn’t a good one.
One player, though, who possibly can be leaned on more heavily offensively is Enes Kanter, who found instant chemistry last season with Westbrook in Durant’s absence. Kanter averaged 18.7 points a game last season with the Thunder and is at 12.4 this season.
“Every guy on the bench has to do two times a better job,” Kanter said. “Obviously Russell is an amazing player, and in this stretch with Kevin out, the pick-and-roll game is going to help us out a lot.”
Westbrook still will have pick-and-pop weapon Serge Ibaka, who has paid off 21 assists for the Thunder point guard this season. There’s Waiters, who is off to an encouraging start this season; there’s Steven Adams, whose offensive game is improving; there’s the emerging Mitch McGary; there’s the 3-point marksman Morrow.
And, of course, there’s still Westbrook. There’s plenty there for the Thunder, and while losing Durant for at least a week is an unwanted setback, they could absorb this blow without much of an issue with a favorable spot in the schedule combined with the apparent depth on the roster.