OKLAHOMA CITY -- With three minutes left and the Oklahoma City Thunder down eight, trying to manufacture a furious late comeback Monday, the ball swung to Serge Ibaka at the top of the key for an open 3.
Ibaka, who had already hit 3-of-5 from deep, hesitated, then hesitated again, before moving the ball to Russell Westbrook. The shot clock began to drain and Westbrook hoisted a forced 3 that clanged long and led to a Sacramento Kings runout for Rudy Gay that put the final nail in a 116-104 loss for the Thunder.
What made that sequence notable was the insecurity Ibaka seemed to have as he locked in on trying to force-feed the ball to Westbrook. With Kevin Durant missing because of a sprained right big toe, the Thunder simply ran out of ideas, especially with Westbrook struggling (17 points on just 6-of-23 shooting and seven turnovers). They looked to Westbrook to constantly engineer their offense -- to score, to pass, to do something -- and when the fire-starting point guard didn't, neither did the Thunder.
Despite Westbrook's offensive stumbles on top of the absence of Durant, the Thunder offense still somehow generated 104 points. Ibaka finished with 25 points. Durant's stand-in, Anthony Morrow, did a decent impression with 20 on 8-of-11 shooting. Defensively, though, the Thunder were a mess and struggled to limit transition opportunities for the Kings. It was a game they needed to just outscore somebody, and without arguably the world's best scorer, they couldn't keep up.
“You’re going to have injuries," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I had enough confidence in the rest of these guys. I thought Anthony Morrow stepped up in that starting role and gave us a really good game and played well. I think that we, certainly from an offensive standpoint without a great shooting night, we still scored 104 points."
So, it's not a surprise the Thunder weren't the same team without Durant. They've been through this before, and even with the superpowers of Westbrook, the Thunder aren't the Thunder without No. 35. They're now 3-4 without Durant, and 21-7 with him. They're a .750 team with him, on pace to win 61 games. Without, they're what they were last season when they missed the playoffs -- an inconsistent, incomplete team.
There's no grand takeaway here, because Monday's loss merely reinforced what we already knew: Without Durant, the Thunder aren't as good. Revelatory analysis there. But while the Kings aren't pushovers, especially when DeMarcus Cousins plays the way he did (33 points and 19 rebounds), there was still obvious disappointment in the Thunder's locker room following the loss. They picked up two technical fouls in the fourth quarter as frustration boiled over. They were still at home, and still are supposed to have enough to beat a sub-.500 opponent even without their best player.
"Just frustrated we were losing the game," Westbrook said of the emotions. "The calls and all that stuff will play out on its own. Just got to do a better job of running better offense and getting back in transition."
The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have drawn a clear line at the top of the Western Conference, and despite a somewhat sluggish start, the Thunder have quietly made a climb back into the conversation. They had won 13 of their past 15 entering Monday's game, and moved within four games in the loss column behind the Spurs. With a soft January schedule ahead, it looked as if the Thunder had a chance to get on a bit of a roll and maybe close the gap even more.
And then Durant sprained his toe Saturday and the Thunder were set back once again. The reason they can't seem to keep pace with the upper tier of the West isn't because they aren't good enough. It's just because No. 35 hasn't stayed on the floor long enough.