The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a cruel blow when superstar Kevin Durant opted to leave the club in the last off-season for the Golden State Warriors.
Billy Donovan’s men had only been narrowly defeated by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in the 2015-16 campaign, with Durant and Russell Westbrook almost outdueling Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Despite their fine performance against the side that had broken the NBA record for most wins during the regular term, the Thunder could not convince Durant to remain in Oklahoma, instead joining the Bay Area outfit to create one of the most formidable teams in the history of the league.
His departure left Russell Westbrook without his team-mate to balance the side, although the 28-year-old would take on the mantle of star man and deliver the best season of his career, winning the MVP award in the process.
Westbrook broke the NBA record for most triple-doubles in a campaign, ending Oscar Robertson’s reign, notching 42 over the course of the term. However, not even his brilliance could stop the Thunder losing heavily to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City’s front office made numerous moves in an attempt to surround Westbrook with talent, but few of those transactions managed to bear fruit last season.
As a result, they’ve been aggressive this summer to land Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, who should alleviate the pressure on Westbrook and turn the Thunder back into contenders in the Western Conference. We’ll now look back at their last campaign to see where the Thunder fell short.
If the Thunder were to be affected by the loss of Durant, their start to the new campaign certainly didn’t show it, with Westbrook rising to the occasion. The point guard notched 32 points in the opener in his side’s comfortable win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
He followed that outing with a 51-point display to guide Oklahoma City past the Phoenix Suns in overtime and then a 33-pointer against the Los Angeles on home soil, collecting triple-doubles in both matches to end the first month of the campaign.
The Thunder’s first defeat of the season came at the hands of Durant and the Warriors, with their former star scoring 39 points to condemn Donovan’s men to defeat. Back-to-back wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat got them back on track, although a run of seven defeats in nine checked their early momentum to start the season.
Westbrook managed to rally his side to stop their cycle of defeats, beginning with a test of character against the Denver Nuggets to triumph on the road in overtime. The Thunder then brushed aside Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks before a Westbrook special delivered an overtime win over the Washington Wizards at the Cheasapeake Energy Arena.
Two triple-doubles to open the month from the point guard started December on a high note. Three defeats in four, including one at the hands of the Rockets on home soil put Donovan’s side under pressure heading into the festive period. However, Westbrook found the peak of his form putting two 40-point efforts back-to-back to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans and the Boston Celtics on the road. He and his side ended 2016 on a high note, defeating the Clippers, to finish the year 21-13.
January was a rare down month for the Thunder, losing eight of their 15 matches, although 12 of their contests were on the road. The new year began with a three-game losing streak, although Oklahoma City managed to bounce back with three wins on the spin to repair the damage.
They struggled to impose themselves away at high-quality outfits, losing to the Clippers, Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers over the course of the month. However, strong efforts from Westbrook earned his side seven wins, keeping them on the path to the post-season.
The Thunder’s form in February suggested that they could challenge in the playoffs, defeating the Cavaliers before the All-Star break, although not even a 47-point effort from Westbrook could overcome the Warriors. Three wins on the bounce out of the break, including a triumph over the Utah Jazz stood Donovan’s men in good stead for the challenges to come.
March began in disastrous fashion with the club dropping their opening four games of the month, despite a season-high 58 points against the Portland Trail Blazers. Donovan’s side righted the ship by winning their next five matches, with a victory over the Spurs kickstarting their surge.
A record-breaking 57-point effort against the Orlando Magic from Westbrook secured his side’s playoff berth, while four further victories in April locked up the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
The Thunder were faced with the challenge of the Rockets in the first round and the immense talent of James Harden. Not even quality performances from Westbrook could tip the balance, with Oklahoma City crashing out in a 4-1 defeat, despite the point guard scoring 51 and 47 points in two of their losses.
The arrival of George should immediately lift an incredible burden off the shoulders of Westbrook. At the pacers the forward averaged 23.7 points per game and that would have been enough to see him comfortably place behind Westbrook for the most points on the Thunder last term.
The 27-year-old was named an All-Star for the fourth year on the bounce and has proven over the course of his career to elevate his performances in the playoffs. Whether his presence will be enough to atone for the loss of Durant remains to be seen, with the Warriors’ forward having been named league MVP and earned the Finals MVP award this year.
However, at the very least he will provide relief for Westbrook in terms of scoring, especially in the crunch matches late in the season.
George’s arrival sent Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Pacers, leaving minor voids, although the signings of Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton will fill some holes. Andre Robertson committed his future to the team by signing a three-year deal and he will aim to kick on, having been named in the NBA All-Defensive Second Team last term.
Westbrook will carry the fortunes of the team once again and it would be hard to look past him to dominate in the 2017-18 season. Therefore backing him at odds of +400 with SunBets to win the MVP award for the second campaign on the bounce is a solid bet.
His performances will dictate if the Thunder can challenge next term and the addition of George should see the club improve from their first-round exit. Due to the talent of both players they could have an outside opportunity at odds of +1800 with TopBet to win the Western Conference.
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