The Oklahoma City Thunder already faced a daunting task in trying to return to the NBA finals. That might have gotten even more difficult after last weekend's trade.
The Thunder now have to make another push for a title without reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, a quest they begin on the road Thursday night in a Western Conference finals rematch against the San Antonio Spurs.
With All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way, the Thunder (47-19) took a major step last season with the franchise's first appearance in the NBA finals since the Seattle SuperSonics lost to Chicago in 1996.
After rallying from a 2-0 deficit against San Antonio to claim the West crown - ending the Spurs' 20-game overall winning streak in the process - Oklahoma City won the series opener versus Miami but dropped the next four games.
With their young core of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka already locked up to long-term contracts, the Thunder tried to keep Harden as part of that group, but couldn't get a deal worked out. Instead, they sent the swingman and three other players to Houston on Saturday for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a pair of first-round picks and a second-round selection.
Martin averaged 17.1 points last season and more than 20 in each of the previous five campaigns. Lamb, the No. 12 overall pick in this year's draft, helped lead Connecticut to an NCAA title in 2011.
General manager Sam Presti said the Thunder still expect to contend for the title.
"With the group that we have, they've been through a lot together and they've won a lot of games together. So, for us, of course we're always going to feel like we've got a chance to do good things," Presti said. "However, I would also add that it's never been our approach to do a lot of talking about what it is we're going to do or who we are.
"I think we're at a point as a franchise where we have to do what we say."
With their bench undergoing some big changes, the Thunder might need some help from their lone 2012 draft pick, Perry Jones III, veteran post player Nick Collison and guard Eric Maynor, who was limited to nine games last season because of a knee injury.
Those players will try to begin contributing against the Spurs, who may not have one of their stars available for this game. Manu Ginobili missed Wednesday's season opener in New Orleans because of back spasms.
The 35-year-old Ginobili sat out four of the team's eight preseason games due to problems with his back.
With their two-time All-Star guard missing, the Spurs trailed by double digits in the first half against a Hornets team that won 21 games in 2011-12 - 29 fewer than San Antonio's West-leading total. Tim Duncan, though, led his team to a 99-95 victory by scoring 24 points and Tony Parker, who finished with 23, hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute.
"If Timmy doesn't do what he does, that's a loss for us," coach Gregg Popovich said. "We put in some plays for him, but it was just his determination down the stretch that got us the win."
Parker has averaged 24.5 points over his last eight matchups with the Thunder, including postseason, and had a season-high 42 in a 107-96 home victory Feb. 4.
Durant scored 34 in the clinching win for Oklahoma City in the West finals and averaged 29.5 on 53.2 percent shooting in the series. Westbrook shot only 37.8 percent over the six games but averaged 24.0 points in the final two.
Martin has averaged 26.3 points and made 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts (19 of 48) in his last six games against San Antonio.
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