OKLAHOMA CITY — The way Kevin Martin describes it, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the “vision” of a potential championship run the morning they learned All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would be out for the rest of the post-season.
Despite fighting to the end in a series of narrow losses to Memphis, the Thunder’s season — which seemed so promising even when the playoffs began — is over much sooner than expected following a five-game loss in the Western Conference semifinals.
After making it to the NBA Finals a year earlier, Oklahoma City claimed the No. 1 seed in the West and was the favourite to make it back and challenge the Miami Heat for the title.
“We lost the guy that has the keys to our car,” Martin said Thursday.
The Thunder’s offence fizzled without Westbrook’s scoring punch and ability to create shots for teammates. To make matters worse, they drew the Grizzlies and their league-best defence in the second round. Three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant tried to pick up the slack, but to no avail.
“Let’s face it, Russell’s really good. He’s not only one of the best point guards, he’s one of best players in the league,” coach Scott Brooks said. “He has earned that with all of the work he has put in. He has a great work ethic and a great attitude to improve every day, and his will to win is at the highest level.
“We are a much better team — there’s no ands, ifs, buts about that. But we’re not an excuse team either.”
Right up until the end, the club believed it could overcome even Westbrook’s injury, suffered in a chance collision with Houston’s Patrick Beverley in Game 2 of the first round. But after winning the next game, Oklahoma City went 2-6 without Westbrook.
“It ended too soon. That’s what I’m going to say about the whole experience,” Martin said. “I think the year, we set ourselves up to be Western Conference champions this year. Heading into the playoffs, we was playing such great basketball and then you have a fluke injury. You know that’s part of sports but you never want to think it’s going to happen to you or your team.
“I feel like that’s how our season will be looked at now. It’s more like a ‘what if’ season.”
The Thunder won 60 games in the regular season and had the best record in the West for the first time since 1996, when the franchise was in Seattle. But all that was thrown out when Westbrook tore cartilage in his right knee during the collision with Beverley and needed surgery.
Durant said he’d still look back on the season for the good times spent with teammates and the opportunities for growth, not a simply a wasted year.
“I’m going to be who I’m going to be. I’m not Kobe Bryant, I’m not Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, not Magic Johnson. I’m me,” Durant said. “I’m not going to ever compromise myself or my integrity or what I believe in to win some basketball games or to win a championship. That’s just how I was brought up.
“I’m always going to fight for the game I love. I’m going to claw until the last buzzer sounds. If that’s after the championship, then of course I’ll be happy. I’m not satisfied just being in this league and losing.”
Durant ended up second in the NBA scoring race to New York’s Carmelo Anthony but improved his efficiency, becoming one of a handful of players in league history to make at least 50 per cent of his field-goal attempts, 40 per cent of his 3-pointers and 90 per cent of his foul shots.
After Westbrook’s injury, Durant averaged 31.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists. It still wasn’t enough to lift his team.
“You don’t win championships … You don’t win playoff series or games with one or two guys. It’s always about a team late in the season. It’s always about a team in the playoffs,” Durant said. “We’re going to need everybody to step up, and I like the way we grew up as a unit.”
Some key decisions loom in the off-season for the franchise that traded eventual All-Star James Harden away at the end of training camp in a bid for financial flexibility under the salary cap. Most notably, Martin will be an unrestricted free agent and may have to take a pay cut to return to the team.
“I’m at a point in my career where I don’t need to get what I can get. … I have a vision of what I want my career to be, and the main thing is happiness and being a part of something special,” Martin said.