<
>

Without Enes Kanter, Russell Westbrook's burden just got heavier

OKLAHOMA CITY -- With the swing of an arm and the seat of a folding chair performing its intended function, albeit at the worst possible moment, the Oklahoma City Thunder's season took an unfortunate turn.

It was a moment of shocking frustration, something out of character for the typically jovial and lighthearted Enes Kanter. The Turkish big man slammed his fist into a padded chair in the second quarter of the Thunder's 109-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks. The chair tilted up as Kanter brought his fist down, and his forearm connected with the metal edge. Kanter sat down, looked at his arm and knew something was wrong. He went back to the locker room for an X-ray, and the worst-case scenario was confirmed: a fractured forearm, with a timetable that could have him out up to two months.

"Things happen," Russell Westbrook said. "If he could take it back, he definitely would. But I think now we have to look forward and try to figure out what the positive things are and get him back as soon as possible."

Kanter has been one of the premier bench scorers in the league the past two seasons, finishing third in Sixth Man of the Year voting a season ago. He's a lethal pick-and-roll target and one of the elite back-to-the-basket bigs in the game. But he has elevated his game as a passer this season, which has transformed the Thunder's previously light second unit. He's near impossible to handle with single coverage, so as opposing teams began sending double-teams, Kanter had unlocked a lot of options for the Thunder's offense.

But now without him for the foreseeable future, the Thunder will have to reconfigure. Their second unit's system completely flowed through Kanter, and the "Stache Brothers" lineup, combining him with Steven Adams, overwhelmed a lot of teams physically. Kanter also can create his own offense, something rare on the Thunder roster for players not named Russell. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Kanter has made the second-most field goals (123) and has the second-highest field goal percentage (56.9) on attempts that do not involve an assist. Only Westbrook has more unassisted points than Kanter's 370.

"I'm disappointed personally because I think Enes had been playing very good basketball," coach Billy Donovan said. "He kind of carved out a niche coming off the bench with that second unit. He was a guy that generated offense for us."

The burden of responsibility on Westbrook's shoulders already carried a ridiculous weight, but with Kanter's upcoming absence, that weight only increases. As evidenced in Thursday's win, in which Westbrook dropped 45 points, the loss of Kanter might just mean more for Westbrook as a scorer, rather than a creator. Westbrook finished with only three assists, his lowest output of the season not counting the game he was ejected in the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies. Kanter has been the beneficiary of 117 assist opportunities from Westbrook's passes, fifth-most on the Thunder, but the next-closest bench player is Jerami Grant with 53. Kanter has the second-highest field goal percentage off Westbrook's passes (55.6 percent), trailing only Adams. And the kicker: Kanter has the highest offensive rating on the team at 108.0 points per 100 possessions. He's an offensive machine.

"It's kind of like with Russell, you can't expect anyone else to go in there and do what Russell does," Adams said of Kanter. "It's just a team thing. That's one of the worst things to do is try and simulate his game. Because that's not going to work. You've got to stay within the system and just rely on that."

As it has been all season, like when Victor Oladipo missed nine games with a sprained wrist, it will be on Westbrook to adjust and carry. Not having one of his favorite pick-and-roll targets could affect his triple-double chase, but as Thursday's game suggests, Westbrook might not be as concerned with that as previously thought. With just three assists and the Thunder in control late against the Mavs, Westbrook slammed the door with a flurry of scoring, rather than trying to pad his passing numbers.

"I could tell in the timeout that he felt like he was getting ready to kind of explode," Donovan said. "He impacts the game in a lot of different ways, and tonight he impacted it with his scoring. The next night could be assists, the next night it could be rebounding."

And over the next couple of months, Westbrook will have to find that balance even more delicately. He's the team's best scorer, its best creator and maybe even its best rebounder. He's rising to the top of the MVP conversation by assuming an incredible amount of responsibility, so what's a little more?

"One thing you can't change is how hard you play regardless of who is on the floor and who is not," Westbrook said. "Coming out and competing at a high level gives us a chance to win any game."