The injury to Russell Westbrook might turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder and especially Kevin Durant this season, coming together in an unexpected way, with the team looking like it can do no wrong at the moment and the player safely on his way to win his first MVP award.
Durant finished with a triple double (32 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists), showing no signs that the injury (probably actual rest and nothing more) that kept him out of the easy win over the Boston Celtics was still affecting him. It’s his 10th consecutive game of 30 points or more, with the Thunder now winning 7 games in a row after struggling early on to cope without Westbrook.
This game was about setting a dominant tone early on, leading to the 103-91 win. Serge Ibaka finished the game with 25 points (12-of-16 from the field) with 11 rebounds but also 5 blocks, all of them coming in the first half. He had two big ones early on that stopped Michael Carter-Williams and showing which team was the more aggressive one right from the start; a theme that kept on appearing throughout the game.
There was really no need for anyone else to really step up. Michael Carter-Williams had no confidence after being blocked by Ibaka for a second time, and the 76ers suffered for it. The team that’s built to win through running and outscoring opponents just didn’t have their motor running at the needed confidence level. While they didn’t let Durant go off in historic levels, he hardly found it a problem, hitting 12-of-17 from the field.
Durant had no problem scoring in the paint and even though they turned the ball over 20 times while shooting only 19% from the field, everything else, from their close-range shooting to their defense (limiting the Sixers to 37.8% from the field and 14.8% from beyond the arc), was too much for one of the weakest teams in the NBA to keep up with.
Where does this stop for Durant? A look at his shooting charts suggests that trying to push him to the left might work better than anything else that isn’t working right now. Durant usually operates from the right of the basket, and no one has really been able to at least make things harder for him by pushing him into less comfortable areas. It might not work as well, but it’s worth a shot. The Sixers anyway aren’t the team that has the ability to pull that off.
So what does work against the Thunder? Right now nothing, but small ball is usually a way to make things difficult. Kevin Durant isn’t going to be stopped completely, but slowing down Serge Ibaka from hitting mid-range shots and finding himself open again and again is a good idea as well, but not easy to execute. Right now it goes beyond flawless tactics and formations (because Brooks isn’t that much of a genius), and simply on team chemistry that’s pumping at the highest level, and a player in the best form of his life; right now the best in the NBA as well.