The Thunder defeated the Rockets 104-101 in Houston on Saturday to take a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference first-round playoff series.
• Oklahoma City's offense ranges from spectacular to brutal in first game without Russell Westbrook. "Stabilizing" might not be the first word that comes to mind when describing Westbrook (who was officially lost for the season to a knee surgery Saturday). His weaknesses -- turnovers, bouts of emotional inconsistency, lack of range on his jumper, occasional bouts of over-shooting -- are far outweighed by his many strengths. But those warts have often fueled a reputation that leans more toward mercurial than reliable. The uber-athletic, fierce, fearless Westbrook is the "heart and soul" of the Thunder, conventional wisdom says, which just might double as an insinuation he's probably not the "brain" behind the operations.
Oklahoma City sans Westbrook in Game 3 was seismographic: Its first-half peaks (62 percent shooting in the first quarter) made championship contention still feel like a possibility, while its second-half lulls (20 percent shooting in the third quarter) brought some harsher realities. Even if his shot isn't always consistent, Westbrook's impact on an opponent's defense almost always is, as he requires attention, gobbles up fouls, gets out in transition and helps foster an environment in which Kevin Durant can comfortably and effectively play 38 minutes or more a night. We learned Saturday the Thunder not only miss Westbrook's ability to beat teams by himself but also the regularity of his presence and its impact on their attack.
The various effects of Westbrook's absence eventually caught up with Oklahoma City, even in a game that saw the Thunder race ahead by 26 points in the first half. Durant played 47 minutes, enjoying only a brief rest in the fourth quarter. He scored 41 points but shot 13-for-30 as he appeared fatigued during stretches of the second half and was forced to handle the ball more, initiate the Thunder's offense more often and create for himself. He was up to this task, rolling in a key three-pointer in the game's final minute, but the enduring feeling was that much tougher tests await. There will be teams who take better care of the ball down the stretch, and hard-double and deny Durant the ball throughout the game, two things Houston was unable to do here.
Durant's burden is heavier and the supporting pieces are now that much more exposed. Serge Ibaka scored 17 points and had two key buckets late, but he's now essentially being moved into a No. 2 scoring option role, and those are huge shoes. Kevin Martin, already Oklahoma City's X-factor, won't be able to get by scoring just 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting and passing up shots down the stretch. Thabo Sefolosha, not usually called on to provide real offense, finds himself an obvious candidate for teams to ignore in favor of making Durant's life that much more difficult. He made up for a 1-for-7 shooting night by rebounding and defending to his usual high standard, but Westbrook's 23 points per game need to be filled by committee, and that's difficult to make happen if two members of the starting lineup -- Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha -- are essentially zeros.
The final result: Durant's 30 field-goal attempts far exceeded his 17.7 average on the season and tied his season high for games that ended in regulation. His 41 points tied his career playoff high and pushed the Rockets to the brink of elimination.
The bad news: It was just barely enough against a slightly above-average Rockets team that showed plenty of heart but wasn't even playing its best ball. Houston shot just 12-for-37 from three-point range, got next to nothing from an injured Jeremy Lin and was kept in the game by the unlikely duo of Francisco Garcia (18 points) and Carlos Delfino (11 points).
Oklahoma City's mentality can and should be that this was a solid, team performance considering the circumstances.
"There's no way around it, it's been an emotional 48 hours," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said afterward. "You can't plan for that [injury]."
Outsiders should take a more skeptical approach, if only because the Westbrook-less Thunder's warts are worse than Westbrook's warts. Oklahoma City is now down to one shot creator, one explosive scorer and two true ball-handlers (Durant and Reggie Jackson). The Thunder also lack the on-ball disruptive element Westbrook brings on defense: After forcing 15 turnovers in Game 1 and 16 turnovers in Game 2, the Thunder forced 11 in Game 3, and the word "forced" would be overly generous, given Houston's carelessness.
The Thunder are now fully on Durant's shoulders and he's not shrinking from the responsibilities in the slightest. But the first glimpse at life after Westbrook made Oklahoma City look exceedingly more beatable and prone to chance and good fortune (the bounce of Durant's three, the amazing spin on Ibaka's over-the-shoulder shot, Derek Fisher's "right place, right time" steal) than they did as recently as Wednesday. Durant was going to need to do more, that much was a given, but it often looked like he was being asked to do too much.
• Reggie Jackson did his part. If the play of both Martin and Sefolosha raised some red flags, Jackson's first career start went as well as could be expected. Durant surely made his life easier by shooting the lights out in the first half and starting many of Oklahoma City's possessions, but Jackson's 14 points in 25 minutes proved helpful by the end, and his two ice-water free throws with eight seconds left were about as big of a mental test as a player can get in a first-round playoff series.
"He kept his composure," Brooks said of Jackson. "His last five minutes, you would have thought he's played six or seven years."
With none of Oklahoma City's other wings well-equipped to run the offense, Jackson is really the only available candidate to alleviate some of the pressure from Durant. He made a solid case for more playing time than the 25 minutes he received and, while the Thunder can't play around with this series, Jackson probably ought to function more often on the ball than he did in Game 3.
• The Thunder sent three Westbrook-related messages. Oklahoma City gave Westbrook at least three obvious shout-outs during Game 3.
Just 29 seconds into the game, Perkins leaned into Patrick Beverley while setting a screen at midcourt, willingly sacrificing a foul to deliver a message of solidarity. Beverley, of course, was involved in the Game 2 play that left Westbrook injured. To remove any doubt about his intentions, Perkins barked at Houston's bench after the foul.
Then, early in the second quarter, Durant made a point of trying to steal the ball from Lin as he was calling a timeout, quasi-replicating Beverley's attempt to steal the ball from Westbrook in Game 2. Lin, who is actually battling a chest contusion, winced in pain after Durant slapped at the ball.
Finally, in a touching moment during the halftime interview, Durant looked straight into the camera, pointed, and said, "I love you, Russ."
Hat tip on multiple videos: YouTube user dailythunder
This post has been updated to correct the Rockets' shooting numbers from three-point range.