Blame for the Thunder's Westbrook-less struggles shouldn't fall on Kevin Durant
After seeing his Thunder swept aside in a 101-88 loss to the Nuggets on Thursday night, Kevin Durant was insistent that the blame for Oklahoma City's failings lie with him. Never mind his 30 points on 18 shots, nor the fact that his teammates combined to shoot 34 percent from the field, thanks to myriad blown finishes and forced jumpers. No matter the facts, in Durant's eyes, this one was on him. From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
“I’m not doing enough to help [my teammates],” he insists. “I’m shooting too much. I’m shooting too many 3s. I’m not helping them out at all. So it’s not on them.”
That, as anyone watching Thursday's night cap well knows, is poppycock. Durant gets a gold star for positioning himself directly between the critical media and his underperforming teammates, though alleging this loss as a personal failure is a bit disingenuous. Could Durant have attempted fewer threes, of which he took seven and made just one? Probably, though of his six misses only two were all that questionable.
The larger problem remains Oklahoma City's disarray in the absence of Russell Westbrook, which is less an assignment of blame and more a statement of fact. No one should much expect the Thunder to be the Thunder without one its foremost stars. Nothing is quite as it should be in his absence; Durant -- contributing all possible with 34.4 points (on 48.6 percent shooting), 8.4 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game -- is overstretched; Serge Ibaka is out of sorts; Reggie Jackson isn't allowed the same margin for error; the presence of non-scorers like Kendrick Perkins is more painful than ever; Derek Fisher is using more meaningful possessions to the team's detriment. To remove Westbrook from the rotation upsets a very delicate balance, which has thus far translated into an expected offensive dip. The finger points only to circumstance itself.
Bigger problems, though, have cropped up elsewhere. Easy though it may be to point to some of the Thunder's more awkward scoring attempts as the reason behind the team's four losses in its last six games, their output (per 100 possessions) since Westbrook's injury has come just a point shy of their season standard. Nothing flows as smoothly without Westbrook's gravitational drives, but OKC has largely trudged through the lags and hiccups in its execution to score at a manageable level all considered. The more concerning issues strike 47 feet downcourt, where a formidable Thunder defense has sequentially gone easy on the Celtics, imploded against the Jazz, and surrendered 89 points through three quarters against the Nuggets. That is not the work of a top defensive team, and yet the Thunder are left to reconcile their top-three standing in points allowed per possession with their scrambled state in coverage.
Oklahoma City has never been a by-the-book defensive outfit, and has instead drawn on length and athleticism to apply pressure at a few key positions. Point guard is among them; though Westbrook's ludomanic defense has likely given Thunder coach Scott Brooks patches of gray, there's value to the way his heightened energy puts opponents on edge. That void alone, though, doesn't in any way translate to the easy scores OKC has surrendered of late. Jackson might not be quite as aggressive in his dealings with opposing ball handlers, but it's through a larger carelessness that the Thunder have faltered.
This isn't quite established as a general rule, as one noteworthy defensive performance against the Rockets on Dec. 29 (a 117-86 rout) stands as testament to what this particular Thunder team can still accomplish. Omit that standout performance, though, and Oklahoma City has essentially allowed its opponents to meet their season averages in points per possession in all seven other Westbrook-less games. For a team of the Thunder's defensive standing (third on the season in defensive rating) playing through a relatively soft string of opponents, that's a worrisome deficiency. On far too many occasions was OKC's structured defense broken down by dribble penetration and a single pass -- a mark of half-hearted commitment to the full responsibilities of team defense. Such errors are part of the reason why the Thunder lost to the worst team in the NBA just a few days prior. They also partially explain how a winnable game went up in smoke on Thursday. They are not the defining reason for Oklahoma City's rash of losses, but they shouldn't be ignored for the sake of pointing out the Thunder role players' predictable shortcomings, nor in Durant's selfless acceptance of blame.