Durant-less Thunder open up in Portland
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Oklahoma City Thunder still enter the 2014-15 season with great expectations even though superstar Kevin Durant will miss the first six to eight weeks recovering from a broken bone in his foot.
The Thunder will kick off the new season without the reigning NBA MVP Wednesday on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. They are slated to play eight of the first 13 games on the road and will face another stiff test Thursday at the Los Angeles Clippers.
Oklahoma City will travel more than 6,000 miles in the first week of action with two back-to-backs. It has won four straight Northwest Division titles and is averaging 54.2 wins per season over the last five years. Those numbers could take a dive with Durant on the sidelines from the jump.
Title dreams for the Thunder took a huge hit when learning Durant would miss the start of the season because of a Jones Fracture in his right foot. Durant led the NBA with 32.0 points per game last season and recently underwent surgery to repair the injury.
"You can't replace Kevin," OKC head coach Scott Brooks said. "He's one of the best players on the planet, but what you can do, is make sure that when he does come back, our team is better."
Durant led the NBA in scoring for a fourth time in the last five seasons and is one of just five players in NBA history to win four or more scoring titles, joining Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin and Allen Iverson. Durant raised eyebrows when he surpassed Jordan's record by scoring 25 or more points in 41 straight games last season. He helped the Thunder win a season- high 10 straight games from Jan. 16-31 and later averaged 34.5 ppg in March.
Durant has led the Thunder to the threshold of NBA immortality in recent years with trips to the Western Conference Finals three times over the past four seasons. However, the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs dispatched the Thunder in six games in the conference finals last postseason.
Oklahoma City, which has prevailed in four of the last five season openers, has qualified for the playoffs in each of the last five seasons and has won 50 or more games in four of those.
This isn't the first time the Thunder had to deal with an injury to a star player, as point guard Russell Westbrook is quite familiar with all of it. Oklahoma City is still one of the top teams in the league and Westbrook said it's all about rallying around each other for the start of the 2014-15 season.
"It's just sticking together," Westbrook said. "It's key that all of us stick together. We have a lot of guys banged up right now, but we have to find a way to stick together, continue to move forward and get wins."
Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5,7 rebounds last season. Along with Westbrook, Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center Kendrick Perkins and guards Brandon Morrow and Reggie Jackson will aid the cause without Durant. Look for some of the younger players such as Steven Adams, who earned the starting center job over Perkins, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones to step up while the Thunder adjust at the start of the season.
"We just have to be great leaders," Perkins said. "We have to be mentors when we're on the court. We have a lot of young guys that are in. When you're on the court, you have to be teaching and also doing your job."
The Thunder went 25-16 on the road last season.
Portland ended a two-year absence from the playoffs as the West's fifth seed and enters the new campaign with a chip on its shoulder.
The 54 wins (54-28) last season equaled the most since an identical record in 2008-09 and were 21 more than the year before when Portland was 33-49 and finished fourth in the Northwest. The Trail Blazers look to build on that mark with a cohesive lineup spearheaded by LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
"People expect us to be a good team because of what happened last year," Lillard said. "We need to expect that of ourselves."
Lillard is one of the cornerstones to the success of the Blazers as well as Aldridge. The duo helped the Blazers to a sizzling 22-4 start last season and the first 50-win campaign since 2009-10 (50-32).
A third-year Blazer out of Weber State, Lillard recorded a career-best 20.7 points and handed out an average of 5.6 assists per game. That was enough for the Trail Blazers to exercise the fourth-year option on Lillard, who made 218 3-pointers to become the first Portland player to ever record at least 200 baskets from downtown. That's better than Terry Porter or Clyde Drexler.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Houston Rockets, Lillard buried a dramatic 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Blazers into the second round of the playoffs. The Blazers won their first postseason set since May 16, 2000 when they beat Utah in five games in the conference semifinals. They had lost seven consecutive series.
However, the losing ways continued in the semifinals, as the Spurs disposed of Portland in five games.
Coming off a career year in which he averaged 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds, Aldridge became the first Trail Blazer to finish among the NBA's top 10 scorers in three straight seasons. Aldridge is not short on confidence for his team's chances this season.
"I definitely feel like we can be one of the top teams in the league," said Aldridge, who recorded a playoff-franchise record 46 points on April 20.
The playoffs are no doubt a destination the Blazers will be making this season and they return nearly the entire roster with the addition of big man Chris Kaman to play alongside Aldridge and Robin Lopez. Steve Blake is back to bolster the guard play and second-year guard C.J. McCollum is back at full strength for head coach Terry Stotts.
"Terry has done an outstanding job during his first two years with the organization," Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said when Stotts received his multi-year extension in May. "This extension illustrates our confidence in him as our head coach as well as the Portland Trail Blazers' continued commitment to building a model of consistency and stability."
Portland, which was a sizzling 31-10 in the Rose City last season, had won four straight season openers until that ended in 2013-14. The Blazers are 2-6 all-time in season openers against Oklahoma City.
The two Northwest rivals split four games last season, but OKC is still 9-2 in the previous 11 showdowns.