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No Russ, no problem


While fans await the return of injured superstar Russell Westbrook, MVP-candidate Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing inspired basketball.

Brendan Hoover January 29th, 2014

As Russell Westbrook works toward his return to NBA action following a third arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee in December, Kevin Durant is making his case for league MVP and the Oklahoma City Thunder are rolling.

After going 5-5 in the first 10 games since Westbrook went out on Dec. 27, the Thunder have racked up several quality wins against playoff contenders.

Oklahoma City plays at two-time defending NBA champion Miami tonight at 6 p.m. CST, and then the Thunder travel to New York to face the Brooklyn Nets on Friday at 7 p.m. CST. The Thunder play at Washington on Feb. 1 and are home against Memphis on Feb. 3.

After dropping 46 points against Portland in a 105-97 win on Jan. 21, Durant had scored 30 or more points in eight straight games, a streak not matched since Kobe Bryant did it over 10 games in 2012. Durant scored 30 points with nine assists in a win over Sacramento on Jan. 19, and he scored a career-high 54 points in a victory against Golden State on Jan. 17.

Since Westbrook last played Dec. 27, Durant is averaging (through Jan. 25) 36.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. While taking more shots with Westbrook’s 21.3 points-per-game average sidelined, Durant also is staying deadly efficient. In January, he is shooting 52.2 percent from the field (as of Jan. 21), including 39.2 percent from beyond the arc and 88.4 percent from the free throw line, where he is averaging 12.5 attempts per game.

“There’s no question we are seeing an amazing player develop in front of our eyes,” Scott Brooks, Thunder head coach, said at a press conference after the game on Jan. 21. “He’s an amazing young man who takes a lot of pride in what he does and how he plays and how he represents our city.”

Despite being named the Western Conference Player of the Month in November and December, Durant stays humble about his success, often crediting his teammates.

“I’m just having fun out there.

I’m blessed to play this game, so every moment I’m on the court, it’s fun for me, no matter how the game is going,” Durant said on Jan. 21. “When you play this game and you look to the bench and see your teammates so happy for you, all I can do is smile, because I genuinely know they’re happy for me and for the team. It’s a great feeling knowing you have a group of brothers out there supporting you no matter what.”

Kendrick Perkins, who hit a huge jumper in the Thunder’s win over Portland, said Durant is playing on a whole other level.

“I wouldn’t be happier for anybody else, just because I see him work so hard on his game,” Perkins said on Jan. 19. “KD is one of the most humble superstars I’ve ever played with, just as far as how he carries himself on and off the court.”

However, Durant is not the only reason for the Thunder’s recent success.

Team defense has been a big part of the winning formula. For the season, the Thunder are allowing just 98 points per game, seventh best in the NBA, and the team’s defensive rating of 101.6 is fourth in the league.

“We hang our hats on the defensive end whether Russ is playing or not,” Perkins said. “I think a lot of people have misunderstood that we are a defensive team first before an offensive team.”

Reggie Jackson, who has performed admirably in the starting lineup, said defensive intensity leads to easy buckets in transition, where the Thunder excel.

“That’s where we have to key in at,” said Jackson on Jan. 19, who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.5 assists per game since Dec. 27.

Serge Ibaka’s offensive game has flourished. Through Jan. 25, Ibaka is averaging 14.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 53 percent from the field, and he has recorded 18 double-doubles.

“I think he’s improved over the years, not only making shots but knowing how to play and knowing where to be so he can have a cleaner look at the basket,” Brooks said. “Like I tell him, his impact has to be a defensive impact. That helps his scoring. ... He’s doing a much better job playing the two-man game with our point guards and KD.”

Jeremy Lamb has given the Thunder a scoring boost off the bench, despite poor shooting in recent games. Lamb is averaging 9.9 points per game (through Jan. 25) and shooting 44.1 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.

“I’m really proud of the way he has played,” Brooks said of Lamb on Jan. 19. “He’s still working. He’s still putting the time in.”

 
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