HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Forget about The Finals, for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have to worry about getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, now that we know they’ll have to finish the Houston Rockets without one half of their superstar dynamic duo. Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee and could be out anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers.
The news hits the Thunder hard. They entered the playoffs as the Western Conference No. 1 seed and now, just two games in, they lead the Rockets 2-0 heading into Saturday night’s crucial Game 3 (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the Toyota Center., they are forced to ponder the possibility of playing for the remainder of the postseason without one of the 10 best players in basketball.
“We hope [he comes back in the playoffs],” Kevin Durant said. “Our firs thing is to make sure he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. We’re not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he’s healthy and his knee is right. That’s our only concern right now.”
There is a time frame that would allow Westbrook to return later in the playoffs, perhaps late in the conference finals or the start of The Finals.
But again, the Thunder will have to make it that far without the league’s resident iron man. Love him or hate him, no one can question Westbrook’s durability, before now. He hadn’t missed a game during his five-year career, having played in 394 consecutive regular season games and all 45 playoff games the Thunder have played during that same span.
But he won’t be on the floor for Saturday night, joining a long list of game changers who are watching this NBA postseason from the bench of or beyond due to injury. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Danny Granger are all watching their teams toil without them in this postseason. They all serve as human reminders for their peers that your next false step could be your last, of this season.
But none of those aforementioned stars plays on a team that had the supposed inside tack to get back to the conference finals and then The Finals, for that rematch with the Miami Heat. Westbrook’s injury opens the door in the Western Conference for the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors to start eyeballing the calendar in early June for a possible trip to The Finals of their own. Shoot, even the Los Angeles Lakers, down 2-0 to the Spurs in their first round series, can start dreaming about doing the unthinkable.
Simply put, the West is wide open now.
“Kevin Durant needs to take the Carmelo Anthony approach,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “Take around 25-30 shots per game, his team already has a 2-0 lead. The one thing about professional sports, and life for that matter, when opportunity knocks, you have to seize it. So trust me, all of the teams in the Western Conference, their ears perked up today. They feel like they have chance to advance.”
The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West this season but entered the postseason with plenty of worthy challengers who did not plan on the fragile nature of things to swing in their favor with Westbrook’s injury. No offense to Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher or anyone else in a Thunder uniform, but it’s Durant and Russell Westbrook who do the headlining. In fact, the Thunder have never had to work for an extended period of time without both of their stars in the lineup.
Trying to navigate these rough playoff waters with only one half of that devastating combination sounds more like mission impossible for a Thunder team that, truth be told, spent much of this season learning how to operate without the former third member of their superstar crew, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Scott Brooks and Durant all did their part to rally the troops today after the news spread of the severity of Westbrook’s injury.
“Our team as a whole, we’ve got a resilient group of guys, a lot of character within that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they’ve been together.” Presti said. “We’d expect them to adjust, come together and have different guys step in and play well collectively. Once we were able to gather all of the necessary information and everything was accumulated, it was an easy decision for our medical team.”
The decision on how to play in Westbrook’s absence won’t be nearly as easy. The Rockets’ defensive strategy shifts now from worrying about picking between two lethal performers to focusing solely on Durant and daring that Thunder supporting cast to beat them. Westbrook averaged 24 points and seven assists through those first two games while also serving, as always, as the Thunder’s primary facilitator.
Jackson’s been solid in spurts of relief this season. Doing it daily, however, could be more than he’s capable of handling. And even if does acquit himself well in the first round, either Chris Paul or Mike Conley and their teams, will be waiting on the Thunder’s replacement for Westbrook in the next round.
Durant insists that the Thunder’s “Next Man Step Up” mantra applies in this case, just as it does any other.
“We have good depth on our team,” Durant said. “Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment. He has been working his tail off ever since he got here. So he’s ready for this. We just have to rally behind him and know that we have to give him confidence, because he’s going to make mistakes like everybody else. But we just have to keep encouraging him.”
All the courage and encouragement in the world won’t make Jackson into Westbrook. Their is certainly survival after losing a superstar. The Lakers (Kobe) and Celtics (Rondo) are proof of that much.
But we’re talking about a team focused on competing for championships, not just surviving.
“It doesn’t matter who we throw out there. We’re a 15-man team and we still are, even with Russell being hurt,” Brooks said. “We’re a 15-man team and everybody believes in each other and that’s what you have to do. You don’t win in this league with one player. You don’t win with five or six players, you win it with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don’t jus throw it out because it looks cool on a t-shirt or a billboard. We believe in each other, we believe in what we do and we take pride in it and we’re proud about what we do.”
We’re all going to find out exactly what the Thunder do when they are forced to play a man down.
Forget about The Finals … for now!