The way Kevin Durant sees it, he has only himself to blame.
Nearly seven months removed from having witnessed his sixth NBA season end in disappointing fashion against the Memphis Grizzlies in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs four games to one, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar contends he assumes full responsibility for how the series unfolded.
“Individually, I took a lot from that series and looked at what I could have done differently,” Durant told MemphiSport before Wednesday night’s game versus Memphis in FedExForum. “But it was a learning experience for us all not having our point guard for that series and having to adjust on the fly.”
Durant was alluding to the absence of Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who was sidelined for the remainder of the postseason after he injured his right knee in Game 2 of OKC’s opening-round playoffs series against the Houston Rockets. Westbrook injured his knee after he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverly while attempting a steal.
Westbrook limped off the court, but continued to play and finished the game with 29 points. However, after having an MRI the following day, it was discovered that the former UCLA star had sustained a slight tear in his right meniscus. After undergoing surgery two days later, the team announced that Westbrook would miss the rest of the playoffs, thus providing Durant with more pressure to steer the heavy-favorite Thunder back to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year.
That he didn’t deliver, the 25-year-old Durant admittedly was fazed by last year’s playoff setback well into the offseason.
“We had an opportunity to win,” said Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer who averaged 28.8 points and 10.4 rebounds in the series against the Grizzlies. “We just didn’t come through late in the game. But that wasn’t on anybody else. That was on me. But injuries happen in this league. Of course, we missed (Westbrook), but we had to move on. He helped us out from the sideline. He’s a great teammate. But I’m glad we got him back now.”
Fortunately for Durant and Co., Westbrook returned this year to the lineup earlier than expected after having arthroscopic surgery on the same knee the first day of training camp. According to team officials, the three-time All-Star was expected to miss the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season.
The six-year veteran, nonetheless, made his season debut in a November 3 home game Phoenix and, given his stellar play in his brief time back, it appears OKC is starting to hit its stride as a legitimate title contender. The Thunder won in impressive fashion Wednesday night against the Grizzlies, 116-100, handing Memphis (10-11) its sixth defeat in its last eight outings in FedExForum.
Durant and Westbrook sat a majority of the fourth quarter as the Thunder led by as many as 24 and captured their fourth consecutive win. OKC (17-4) now trails first-place Portland by a half game in the Western Conference standings. Westbrook, who sat on the bench in the final frame with ice packs draped over both knees, managed a game-high 27 points on 7-of-12 field goals in 27-plus minutes.
“I’m great, man,” said Westbrook, when asked after the game about his health. “It feels good. I’m taking it one day at a time, taking care of my body, which is most important, and trying to continue to get wins.”
Durant, meanwhile, registered 18 points in 34 minutes, 11 points below his league-leading average of 29 points per
Now with last year’s playoff series loss to the Grizzlies behind him, Durant said his primary focus is to help the Thunder vie for a championship, something about which he admittedly failed miserably last year.
Only this time, the Thunder hope to fulfill their championship aspirations with a healthy Westbrook, arguably one of the league’s elite point guards who seemingly hasn’t shown any signs of rust since his return to the lineup just nine days ago.
“I’m always inspired to get better knowing that I can get better,” Durant said. “I wanted to come back this year better knowing we’d have another opportunity to be a good team in this league first off and try to make the playoffs. It’s great to have him back. His energy and his leadership go a long way. People may not like what he brings to the table as a point guard, but we enjoy it. He’s changed so many games for us and he’s a blessing to have on the team.”
That was evident Wednesday night.