Thunder prepare to start season without Durant
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Russell Westbrook is entering new territory.
For the first time in his career, the ultra-athletic Oklahoma City Thunder point guard will be without Kevin Durant for an extended period of time. Durant, the reigning NBA MVP and scoring champion, was diagnosed with a Jones fracture in his right foot and had surgery on Oct. 16. His status will be evaluated six weeks after the surgery date.
Westbrook is the logical choice to pick up some of the scoring load. The three-time All-Star was dominant during last season's playoffs, averaging 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds in 19 games. He said his role won't change with Durant out.
''Just constantly do what I need to do to help us win games,'' he said. ''Find a way for guys to step up and play together.''
Durant averaged 32 points per game last season, and coach Scott Brooks has said his output won't be replaced by a single person. There are several candidates to step in and get more playing time, including Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Andre Roberson and newcomer Anthony Morrow. Lamb averaged 18.3 points through four preseason games.
Eventually, the Thunder expect to end up where they usually do - making a deep playoff run. Oklahoma City has reached the Western Conference finals in three of the past four years, and the NBA Finals once.
''I have a great amount of respect for that next step,'' Brooks said. ''We are close. We've been close for a few years now. A lot of teams would love to be in this position. It's a very competitive league.''
Here are more things to watch as the Thunder prepare to open the season on Oct. 29 at Portland:
ADAMS' DEVELOPMENT: The second-year center was behind Kendrick Perkins in the rotation last year, but he stepped up in the regular season while Perkins was injured, then improved more dramatically during the playoffs. Last season, Adams was mostly a tough guy who would get rebounds, block shots and annoy people. Now, he is a legitimate scoring threat - in his first three preseason games, he averaged 18.7 points per game and made 24 of 28 field goals. Perkins is hurt again, and Adams' development as a scorer couldn't have happened at a better time with Durant out.
''He finishes around the rim,'' Brooks said. ''He's doing a great job of setting screens and rolling, and Russell (Westbrook) is doing a great job of finding him. That's what he has to continue to do.''
JACKSON'S ROLE: Jackson has proven he has star talent - he scored 32 points in a playoff win over Memphis last season - but it's unclear if he can truly break out in Oklahoma City. Jackson wants to be a starter, but he's behind Westbrook at point guard, and it's not clear if Brooks will play Westbrook and Jackson together like he did in the Western Conference finals against San Antonio. It's the final year of Jackson's rookie deal, which could motivate him or disrupt team chemistry.
''I think we've been really clear about his importance to the team, that we see him as a core member of the team, as a core member of the organization,'' Thunder general manager Sam Presti said.
MORROW'S IMPACT: The Thunder picked up Morrow as a free agent in the offseason to help address their perimeter shooting woes. Too often last season, the Thunder were unable to take full advantage of the attention Durant and Westbrook drew because their teammates didn't take or didn't make available shots. There will be no such problem with Morrow, who has made 43 percent of his 3-pointers during a six-year NBA career, including 45 percent last season with the New Orleans Pelicans.
MITCH McGARY: The rookie power forward impressed the Thunder early by demonstrating the toughness, finishing skills and ability to run the floor, and that made management take a chance on him despite his past back problems and admission to smoking marijuana while at Michigan. He got off to a good start in the preseason, making 7 of 14 shots and scoring 14 points against Denver, but he has been out since then with a fractured left foot. He's expected to be out for at least another month, but he appears ready to be a solid backup for Serge Ibaka upon his return.
BROOKS' COACHING: Brooks always has been able to win when key players sustain injuries that keep them out for extended time, but Durant has never been the injured player. The early stretch of the season will be the biggest test of Brooks' head coaching career because he doesn't have the giant MVP eraser to fix things, and the Thunder don't want to get behind in the race for the top seed in the West.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP