The Oklahoma City Thunder went from having the Western Conference's best regular-season record last season to being knocked out of the postseason early after losing Russell Westbrook to a knee injury. Although the Thunder are expected to get Westbrook back before 2014, this season's Western Conference darlings appear to be the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, not the Thunder.
With the reigning West champion San Antonio Spurs as a role model, Kevin Durant won't let the lack of adulation get under his skin just two seasons removed from being in the NBA Finals.
"People don't mention the Spurs at all before the season and look where they always are at the end of the season," Durant told Yahoo Sports while on a tour promoting the "NBA2K14" video game. "Outside chatter doesn't really mean anything to us as a group."
Westbrook began practicing in a limited capacity on Monday, about three weeks after having a second right knee surgery. The injury – a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, which he suffered in Game 2 of a first-round playoff matchup against Houston – is expected to sideline Westbrook 4-6 weeks of the regular season. Such a timetable could mean a mid-December return.
In the preseason, Durant scored 36 in one game and five in another. He said in the games without Westbrook, he'll determine on a game-by-game basis whether it's best to be more of an offensive scorer or passer. Durant added that moving the ball well on offense and tough man-to-man defense will be key to winning without Westbrook. The Thunder will also rely on third-year point guard Reggie Jackson in Westbrook's absence.
In the tough and deep West, Westbrook's absence will make it hard for the Thunder to earn the top playoff seed, which they did last season with 60 regular-season victories. After losing Westbrook, they were eliminated in the conference semifinals by the Memphis Grizzlies.
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As long as Oklahoma City is healthy when it matters most in the playoffs, Durant says the franchise will remain relevant.
"We know we can compete with any team."