HOUSTON -- So the Thunder can win without Russell Westbrook. They can win a playoff game, and they can win it on the road. That's what we learned Saturday night as the Thunder played the first game in franchise history without their injured point guard, got 41 points and 14 rebounds from Kevin Durant, and beat the Rockets 104-101 to take a 3-0 series lead.
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The Thunder are going to win this first-round series, but I'm not sure they're going to go much farther. Not unless Thunder coach Scotty Brooks learns the same thing I learned -- the same thing you learned, if you were watching this game -- about his Westbrook-less team.
But after watching how this game started and then nearly got away from the Thunder, and after talking with Brooks -- after telling him what I saw, and asking if he saw the same thing -- I'm telling you:
Brooks didn't see it. He didn't get it. That can change between now and Monday night, when the Thunder will try to finish off the Rockets in Game 4 at the Toyota Center. Between now and then Brooks will watch the tape. Talk to his staff. Talk to Durant. Either he'll see it, or he won't. Either he learns, or he doesn't.
Durant has to dominate the ball for the Thunder, as they are currently built with Westbrook out for the season following Saturday's knee surgery, to do anything significant in the Western Conference. Beating the Rockets? That would be nice, but that wouldn't be significant. The Thunder are the No. 1 seed in the West. The Rockets are the eighth seed. Beating the Rockets without Westbrook, after building a 2-0 series lead with him, wouldn't be significant.
Winning the next series? Significant. But for the Thunder to win the next series, and even the next one -- forget about beating the Heat in the NBA Finals, OK? -- Kevin Durant has to dominate the ball. He has to dominate the ball like Russell Westbrook has dominated the ball for years, with one difference: Durant is better at it. Which is no shock, really, given that Durant is one of the two best basketball players in the world. Westbrook is a very good player, but he's not that. Durant is, and showed it Saturday night when given the chance by his coach.
Problem is, it was necessity that forced Brooks to give Durant that chance, the "bad" break of two early fouls for replacement point guard Reggie Jackson, who left the game with 8:23 left in the first quarter and the Thunder trailing 9-6. With Brooks forced to bring in Derek Fisher, he gave the ball to Kevin Durant in the backcourt.
A 20-2 Thunder run happened. A blowout happened.
With room to operate and build momentum, and with the extra benefit of a screen at the midcourt stripe, Durant was unstoppable. The Rockets were traffic cones to be navigated, and he navigated them easily. He stopped 10 feet out for a jumper, then another from 17 feet. He got into the lane and found Fisher open for a 3-pointer. He dribbled 90 feet and didn't stop until he was dunking. And did it again.
In the first quarter Durant had 17 points and the Thunder led 39-19. In the first half he had 27 points and the Thunder led 66-49.
In the second half the Thunder scored 38 points, one less than they had in the first quarter alone. What changed?
Kevin Durant stopped dominating the ball. Brooks gave it to Derek Fisher to bring up the court. He gave it to Reggie Jackson. A few times he gave it to Thabo Sefolosha, because what the hell -- if you're going to misread the game, misread it all the way.
Afterward, nicely, I questioned Brooks. Did he see that his team was at its best when Durant dominated the ball? No. Not really. What he saw, he said, was that "Kevin does a great job being a playmaker. He's done that the last couple of years."
I tried another way, asking Brooks if he agreed that his offense was best when Fisher was on the court, which gave him no choice but to have Durant dominate the ball.
Nope. No agreement.
Brooks talked instead about how well Fisher played, about the two free throws Fisher hit late in the game being indicative of the kind of clutch player Fisher has been throughout his career. And Brooks was right; Fisher did play well, and he did hit two free throws with 12.5 seconds left to give the Thunder a 102-99 lead. That came after Durant hit the shot of the game, a 3-pointer that bounced hard on the rim, then softer, then softer still before falling in for a 100-99 lead with 41.9 seconds left. Rockets star James Harden called it a "lucky shot," while Durant said "the Lord was with us."
But Brooks had missed my point. Fisher wasn't the point. His presence on the court in the first half, forcing the Thunder to abandon their plans and give the ball to Durant, was the point. Maybe you're thinking Brooks was avoiding the topic. That he didn't want to talk about it but he had to see what I saw, and what you saw, that the Thunder ran away from the Rockets when Durant was given the ball in the open court -- time after time after time -- and the Houston defense was unable to stop him.
But if Brooks did in fact see it, why did he stop it? Why did he take the ball out of Durant's hands? Why did the Thunder dominate the game one way, and then play another way and watch it almost get away?
Someone else asked Brooks why the Thunder couldn't maintain control of the game. Here, finally, was Brooks' chance to tell us that he knows what happened.
"Good NBA players made a couple of plays [for Houston]," Brooks said. "It's as simple as that."
He doesn't get it.
But he has time. The tape will show him what he didn't see there on the court, immersed in the game and the substitute patterns and all the other hysteria that happens courtside. Even when he sees it -- and he will see it, right? -- Brooks will have to decide whether or not Durant can handle the stress of not just playing most of the game, but playing it as the guy dominating the ball. Sad to say, that's what the Thunder need without Russell Westbrook there to help Durant out. Eric Maynor, the Thunder's backup point guard deluxe of recent years, isn't walking through that door.
To make any noise in the playoffs -- and eliminating the eighth-seeded Rockets won't be a loud thing for the No. 1-seeded Thunder to do -- Kevin Durant will have to carry this team like he has never carried it before. He will have to carry it, frankly, like LeBron James carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals. Those Cavaliers were similar to these Thunder, minus Westbrook. One superstar. Some nice pieces. And a coach who better understand what his team is.
And what his team is not.
And unless Durant is dominating the ball, the Thunder just aren't very good.