No Kevin Durant, no Serge Ibaka, and Thunder still likely will be West’s eight seed


There was a time a couple weeks back when it looked like Oklahoma City could become the most dangerous eight seed in NBA history. Russell Westbrook was (and is) playing at an MVP level, Kevin Durant was coming back and they not only had the core of a team that went to the Western Conference finals a season before, but also had improved the bench.

But now Kevin Durant is out indefinitely (and may well miss the playoffs) because of his Jones fracture not healing right. (This is not uncommon, there is not great blood flow to that area.) Serge Ibaka is out until sometime around when the playoffs start. Enes Kanter is banged up. The threatening Thunder are no more.

Despite all that, the Thunder are still the favorites to be the eight seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Thunder currently have a one-game lead over the Pelicans and a two-and-a-half game lead over Phoenix. There are three reasons the Thunder likely hold on to the eight seed.

1) Oklahoma City has the easier schedule the rest of the way. Both, the Thunder and Pelicans, have 14 games remaining. The Thunder have eight of those games at home, the Thunder six. The Thunder have eight games remaining against teams over .500, three of them on the road; the Pelicans have nine games remaining against + .500 teams, five of those on the road. It’s going to be tough for the Pelicans to make up that game against a tougher schedule.

2) Oklahoma City still has Russell Westbrook. You’ve certainly heard this but here is a reminder: In his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 35 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists a game. He has been the best player in the league. I hear your complaints, that he’s not shooting a high percentage (40 percent), and he’s turning the ball over more than Scott Brooks wants to see (6.4 a game). But that’s the price of how much he has to handle the ball and how much offense he has to generate. Plus the Thunder are playing at a better rate their last 10 games than the Pelicans (something Kevin Pelton broke down at ESPN Insider). He is playing at a level that can carry this team to the playoffs. (If you’re saying “the Pelicans have their own star in Anthony Davis” you’d be right — except he missed Thursday night and is expected to be out Friday with a sprained ankle. And without him the Pelicans are not the same.)

3) Phoenix threw in the towel on this race back at the trade deadline. Thinking they could not keep pace with the surging Thunder (who then seemed likely to keep rolling and stay healthy), back at the trade deadline the Suns shipped out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns made moves they saw as needed for the long term (we can debate that another day). Since the trade deadline the Suns are 7-8, and at that pace they are just not going to make up the needed ground on the Thunder or Pelicans.

When the playoffs start April 19, it’s likely we will see Russell Westbrook and the Thunder as the eight seed, facing Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder will be huge underdogs — not the serious threat they looked like a month ago — but they likely get to go to the dance.

Despite everything.

Thunder, even with Kevin Durant’s season in jeopardy, still have luxury of patience


Kevin Durant could miss the rest of the season. The Thunder could miss the playoffs. Oklahoma City could miss Durant as he’s playing for the Wizards in 2016.

Are we witnessing the dying days of the greatest dynasty that never was, one undone by a too-soon trade of James Harden and Durant’s bad foot?

Probably not.

The Thunder are too young and too good to dismiss. Even now.

Oklahoma City has been one of the NBA’s premier franchises for years, and most teams’ windows would be closing in such dire times. But the Thunder are not most teams.

The 2010 Thunder were the youngest playoff team of all time, weighted by playing time in the postseason. The 2011 Thunder were second-youngest. The 2012 Thunder were the young NBA Finalist in 25 years.

Oklahoma City’s youth affords tremendous patience, and the team will cash in on some now.

As general manager Sam Presti said today, Durant won’t try gutting out this injury to help the team win this season. Even though the Thunder could win a title this year, Presti maintained Durant won’t return to the court until he’s no longer experiencing pain.

That’s a wise decision for Durant’s long-term health, and the Thunder should be scary as ever next season. Durant (26), Russell Westbrook (26) and Serge Ibaka (25) are still in their primes and will be for a while. As long as the team suffers no further injuries, Oklahoma City will be among the 2016 title favorites.

This long-term view doesn’t even disqualify the Thunder from competing this season. Despite all their injuries, the Thunder are still in playoff position. Durant’s 27 games, 18 wins, might have provided Oklahoma City enough buffer over the Pelicans (one game back) and Suns (2.5 games back). And if the Thunder get in, they have a chance to advance deep. The further they go, the more time Durant has to heal.

And who knows how long he’ll really need? This wouldn’t be the first time the Thunder were accused of overstating an injury.

But even if Durant actually misses the rest of the season, it’s a temporary blip. Expectations will remain sky high for at leas another season.

Durant could leave in free agency, but he’ll begin next season with the Thunder. If anything, this season’s disappointment could make next Durant even happier if next season proves successful. It’s human nature to compare experiences.

Yes, the Thunder are moving closer to their window closing, and Durant’s injury pulls it down a little more. It could slam shut if Durant leaves in 2016.

But that prospect is still so distant, the Thunder can afford the patient approach.

There will be plenty of time to panic about the end of an era later. For now, it’s merely interrupted.

Thunder’s Enes Kanter out of lineup Friday vs. Hawks with sprained ankle

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The injury gods continue to show Oklahoma City no mercy.

No Kevin Durant, maybe not for the entire season. No Serge Ibaka, likely until around the start of the playoffs. And now, no Enes Kanter.

The Turkish big man has averaged 16.5 points and 10.4 rebounds a game for OKC since he was acquired from the Jazz at the trade deadline, but a sprained ankle suffered Wednesday night will sideline him in a showdown with the Hawks Friday, reports Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman, getting the word from Thunder GM Sam Presti.

This could be another good night to have Russell Westbrook on your fantasy team.

The Thunder are one game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans and 2.5 up on the Phoenix Suns for the final playoff spot in the West. The rash of injuries to the Thunder would seem to give the Pelicans a chance to move up the standings, but New Orleans was without Anthony Davis Thursday night and he likely is out Friday as well. The Pelicans are just not near the same team without him.

All of which means with 14 games left the Russell Westbrook show might be enough to get the Thunder the eight seed.

Kevin Durant could miss rest of season, Thunder general manager says


Yesterday, Thunder coach Scott Brooks indicated Kevin Durant’s recovery was trending the wrong direction.

Today, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti showed the setback was no small issue.

The team is removing Durant, who’d begun practicing, from basketball activities.

“When he’s healthy to play, and when he’s able to return without that soreness, he’ll be back on the floor,” Presti said. “If that takes the rest of the regular season, if that takes the rest of the playoffs, that’s what it’s going to take.

“He’s not making the progress that we had hoped and anticipated him making.”

Asked whether Durant shutting down for the rest of the season would be best for him, Presti said, “That’s the direction we’re taking right now.” Presti added that Durant will undergo more testing.

The Thunder superstar fractured his foot in October, said he wouldn’t rush back and then returned in December. He experienced more soreness last month, and he had another procedure.

This lingering injury is definitely reason to be concerned about the long-term outlook of Durant, 26.

For Oklahoma City, the short-term is also murky.

The Thunder are eighth in the Western Conference, one game ahead of the Pelicans and 2.5 games ahead of the Suns.

Serge Ibaka could miss the rest of the regular season, and Enes Kanter is also banged up. If Oklahoma City is going to make the playoffs, Russell Westbrook must continue to carry a huge load.

But more than the postseason, the focus is on Durant.

“The goal is to get him back on the court healthy whenever that is,” Presti said. “The last thing on our mind is ever putting a player in position to try to win a ball game at expense of their health.”

Three Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: It’s not always pretty, but Harden is serious MVP candidate


If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while watching your NCAA Tournament bracket go up in flames…

1) James Harden gives us 50 reasons he’s an MVP candidate. If you’re going to base your MVP choice on who has the most aesthetically pleasing game, pick Stephen Curry. James Harden’s game isn’t pretty. He isn’t the explosive athlete that Russell Westbrook is. Yet Harden is effective — very effective. He dropped a career-high 50 points on the improved Nuggets, shooting 12-of-27 and getting to the free throw line 25 times (hitting 22). That’s what he does; he attacks and you can’t guard him without fouling. It’s not always pretty, just look at is shot chart.


However, thanks to Harden the Rockets have held on to the three seed in the West without Dwight Howard in the lineup. That’s Harden. That’s the work of a guy you have to consider for MVP.

2) Ugly game sets Pelicans’ playoff chances back. And the game of basketball. The Pelicans won four in a row without Anthony Davis not all that long ago, but if you watched the Suns and the Pelicans play Thursday you’d have to ask “how?”Here is all you need to know about the New Orleans vs. Phoenix game: The Suns shot 34.9 percent overall and 9.1 percent from three and won. The real issue for the Pelicans was this is the kind of game they really needed, they are now one game back of the Thunder for that final playoff spot in the West (and the Thunder likely get Kevin Durant back this week).

3) Utah keeps racking up wins since All-Star Game. The Jazz are now 12-4 since the All-Star break and have played the best defense in the league during that time. That said hopefully you watched Kentucky’s game, or caught up on the new season of House of Cards, or something else rather than watching this game. It wasn’t pretty. Utah won 80-73 behind 22 from Gordon Hayward, and the Jazz will take the win. Now let us never speak of this game again.