When All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went down with injuries just before and at the start of the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances of a fourth trip to the Western Conference Finals in five years looked dangerously slim.
Now at 25-24 in the stacked West, with Durant still on the mend and Westbrook on the tear of his life, the Thunder are two games back of the final playoff spot in the conference and may need several breaks in order to make the postseason.
Specifically, the Thunder will need Westbrook to maintain his breathtaking pace on both ends of the court through a difficult second-half slate of games while Durant fully recovers from a sprained toe injury. Durant expects to play on Friday night in a home matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans.
"These last four or five days I was able to rest it a little bit to be able to play tonight," Durant said at shootarounds.
With Durant battling recent injuries, Westbrook has carried the offense with career highs across the board and the NBA’s third highest player-efficiency rating of 27.93. Launching 20.5 field-goal attempts a game, Westbrook is scoring 25.4 points and dishing out 7.5 assists per contest.
Westbrook’s three-point efficiency has dipped below 30 percent for the first time since his second year in the league, but he’s made up in other areas, especially at the free-throw line. Overall, Westbrook is third in the league with 8.4 free throws a game, and knocks them down at an 81.2 percent rate.
Westbrook is also helping on the defensive end, topping the league with 2.2 steals per game and the Thunder are 10th overall in points allowed at 98.1.
On Friday night, Durant will only be making his second appearance in the Thunder’s last six games and head coach Scott Brooks is unlikely to force the four-time scoring champion to play heavy minutes.
Westbrook has received some help from center Serge Ibaka, but the Congolese big man has regressed slightly this year with his points, rebounds and blocks all dipping below last year’s averages.
Instead, Westbrook’s received a boost from guards Reggie Jackson and the recently acquired Dion Waiters, who have combined for 25.1 points per game.
Yet even if that duo can aide Westbrook for stretches on offense, there’s little room for error or any more injuries to the Thunder’s roster. The bench is 16th in the NBA with 33.1 points per game, even though it contributes 19.1 minutes a contest, the eighth highest total in the league.
Until Durant is completely healthy, which may not occur this season given the two injuries he sustained earlier this week alone, Westbrook will be charged with carrying the Thunder through a harrowing West gauntlet.
Of Oklahoma City’s remaining 33 games, they’ll hit the road 13 times and square off against playoff teams 20 times. Complicating matters is the Thunder’s 11-17 road record.
Furthermore, they have eight head-to-head matchups against the current No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 seeds in the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, and the Pelicans. Of those four teams, only the Pelicans have a losing road record.
Westbrook proved he can handle the workload by equaling his career-best with 45 points against New Orleans Wednesday, also snaring six rebounds and dropping six assists in the 102-91 road victory.
But if he needs a career night against every team in the West, the Thunder could slip out of the postseason for the first time in six years.