There is a Kevin Durant-sized hole in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s heart and franchise, and that vacancy was on full display Thursday night in Oakland as Durant’s Golden State Warriors pounded the Thunder into submission 122-96. Ironically, that was slightly below Durant’s career average, a few ticks above 27 points per game.
For Thunder fans, it was tough viewing and a reality check. A 4-0 start, despite the opposition, had garnered enthusiasm from a fanbase that had been put through hell and back over one of the biggest summers in the NBA history.
The previous night’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers had garnered optimism that an upset could be caused over the franchise that had decapitated their Championship chances by poaching their greatest ever player.
Then Durant destroyed them, posting 39 points and 7 rebounds, including a mesmerizing 15-24 from the field and 7-11 from the perimeter. It was an unstoppable display. After years of watching Durant torture other teams; it was the Thunder on the receiving end.
His 29 points in the first half were the most in a half since he dropped 30 on the Warriors in the first half of a game during the 2014-15 season before injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the game.
The aftermath of the game will be vicious, and that might be because outside of the Warriors the Thunder themselves might have the most interesting narrative of the regular season. Russell Westbrook is the sole alpha, and it is his franchise to lead now. He passed his first big test on Wednesday against the Clippers, but he wasn’t enough and was found wanting on Thursday. The reality, though, is he can’t do it all on his own.
Oklahoma City has ten players on the current roster under twenty-five years old, and six new players who were not with the team last season. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are two of them, and they are starting. That takes time to integrate.
The Thunder were also a plus-7 with Steven Adams on the floor, whose foul trouble in the second quarter spelled the end for his team who were a minus-33 when he sat during the game. They lost the second quarter by 26 points, the majority of which Adams was planted on the bench.
It was a reminder that the Thunder still have issues at both ends. Their defense has been excellent so far, but it falls away when Steven Adams isn’t on the court. Through five games, their defensive rating is 90.8 with him, but an incredible 12.6 points worse with a 103.4 rating when he sits.
Meanwhile unlike the Oklahoma City Thunder of the past, this Thunder team does rely on defense. It has been defensive stops that have won them their close games so far against the Sixers, Suns and Clippers, whilst in days gone by it was a juggernaut offense that would blast them to victories. Westbrook’s role is to include role players and make them better, and that is his biggest challenge above all else moving forward.
Now the team’s focus moves to Sunday, where they will play rising division rival the Minnesota Timberwolves who have made an early habit of building double-figure leads and blowing them. Typical of a young team, they remain dangerous nevertheless.
Russell Westbrook’s revenge mission will continue on Saturday when the Timberwolves visit Chesapeake Arena, and it remains to be seen whether a hangover persists from their first reunion with their former franchise cornerstone.