Thunder-Jazz Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated October 29, 2013
Although Oklahoma City finished with the Western Conference's best record last season and has perennial MVP candidate Kevin Durant, the Thunder enter 2013-14 with a degree of uncertainty. The prospects for the Utah Jazz appear a bit more clear, as they're focused on rebuilding. Expected to be without Russell Westbrook for the first month of the season, the Thunder open up Wednesday night against a young Jazz team that must replace much of its offense from a year ago. Westbrook originally injured his knee during the opening round of last season's playoffs against Houston, a series Oklahoma City eventually won before falling in the second round to Memphis. He underwent successful surgery to repair a torn meniscus and appeared on track for a full recovery before the second surgery - a setback Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said was minimized because of Westbrook's positive outlook and already strengthened knee. Oklahoma City is accustomed to overcoming doubt, having gone 60-22 last season even after the trade that sent James Harden to Houston. That was thanks in large part to Durant's average of 28.1 points, as well as Westbrook's 23.2 points and 7.4 assists per game. Westbrook's injury had a crippling effect at times on the Thunder's offense during the playoffs - with Durant's shooting percentage falling from 51.0 percent during the regular season to 42.1 in the series against the Grizzlies. This season, Oklahoma City must once again overcome the loss of a key offensive piece, with guard Kevin Martin and his 14.0 points per game leaving for Minnesota. The Thunder, who went 3-1 against Utah last season, are counting on several familiar faces to replace Martin's offense, including guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Jackson, in particular, surged in the playoffs last season, averaging 13.9 points after scoring just 5.3 during the regular season. "We're very confident that we can (win the championship)," Durant said. "We're not going to come in and say, 'We can't win it all; we don't have enough.' We're a confident group of guys." Oklahoma City is also looking for Serge Ibaka to shoulder a bigger load after he averaged career highs of 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds last season. He also led the league in blocked shots for a second straight season, averaging 3.0. "We feel we're in a good position," Durant said. "That's all that really matters. If we come in here thinking we lost momentum or anything like that, that will mess us up. So, we just try to focus on each and every day and we'll be fine." The Jazz feel like they're heading in the right direction, but they moved into rebuilding mode by shuttling four of their top five scorers after finishing last season at 43-39, just missing the playoffs. Management hopes loyal followers will show patience as youngsters like center Enes Kanter, forward Jeremy Evans and guard Alec Burks become the supporting cast to Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. "It's going to be a challenge for sure but it will definitely be exciting. We are ready to take the next step and we can't wait for the season to get started. It's going to be quite a journey for this team," said Hayward, the team's top returning scorer at 14.1 points per game last season. The Jazz showed their full commitment to the youth movement by signing the 6-foot-10, 263-pound Favors to a four-year extension that is worth more than $50 million with incentives. A similar deal for Hayward is in the works and is expected to be signed before Thursday's deadline. "We will be looking to have Gordon and Derrick make big plays for us this year on both ends of the court," coach Tyrone Corbin said. Corbin will be without Trey Burke for the first two to three months after he had surgery to repair a fractured right index finger. The ninth pick of the draft was set to be the starter at point guard, a job Corbin will now hand to journeyman John Lucas III. The Thunder won't have center Hasheem Thabeet for the opener after he was suspended one game without pay by the NBA for head-butting New Orleans' Greg Stiemsma in a preseason game.
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