- Grizzlies vs. Thunder: Series Hub
OKLAHOMA CITY – Russell Westbrook typically ranks talking with reporters right up there with, oh say, having knee surgery. But on Thursday morning, in his first appearance since undergoing season-ending knee surgery 12 days ago to repair a meniscus tear, Westbrook was disarmingly charming, open, honest and remarkably upbeat for a player who had never missed a game and now must sit out what was to be a charge back to The Finals.
The All-Star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder might be out, but he said his teammates can still get there.
“They’re tough, man,” Westbrook said. “The group of guys we have, I think we have enough to get a ring. Honest opinion.”
Westbrook will remain on crutches for up to a month and he won’t be able to travel with the team to Memphis as the semifinal series tied at 1-1 shifts to Memphis for Games 3 and 4 starting on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
He has begun daily limited rehab. He wears a brace that runs nearly the entire length of his right leg. It keeps him off the bench during games, but Westbrook has remained a constant presence around the team. He’s still attending practices, watching film and spending time in the locker room before games and during halftime.
He’s more a fan when seated high above the court in a suite, and then a coach when he heads to the locker room talk to second-year guard Reggie Jackson, his replacement, or to Kevin Durant, his superstar teammate now charged with so much responsibility.
“It hurts me not to be able to go out there and help my team,” Westbrook said. “Even though I’m out, I still have a voice and I can still help my team, still find a way where I can communicate things to guys. Maybe they don’t listen, maybe they do, but I still can use my voice and try to find a way to help my team.
“As a point guard and a leader of this team, my job is to find a way where I can help my teammates, coaching staff and the organization. They’ve been a big supporter of me and my job is to give it back, help them as much as I can with my input.”
Westbrook said the most surreal moment of the past two weeks was awakening from surgery, the first of his career, laying in a hospital bed with his mom by his side, disoriented, his knee immobile. The event that put him in that position occurred just before halftime of Game 2 in the first round series against Houston.
Westbrook casually dribbled toward the sideline near midcourt to call timeout with 5:34 left in the second quarter. As Westbrook picked up his dribble, Rockets rookie guard Patrick Beverley had other ideas and lunged low attempting to make a steal. But Beverley awkwardly clipped Westbrook’s leg.
The pain instantly registered. Westbrook hopped on one leg and pounded the scorer’s table with his fist. He glared at the Houston bench in disgust before doubling-over. He knew something was wrong, describing the amount of pain at the moment as “a lot,” but he didn’t consider leaving the game either. Out of the timeout, Westbrook made a steal and layup.
“Once it got to halftime, it got real stiff so it was real tough for me to come back and start running again and jumping,” Westbrook said. “But as the game went on, the crowd was going; I’m going to continue to play and find a way I can help.”
Westbrook played the entire second half and scored 16 points in the Thunder’s 105-102 victory in a series they would eventually close in six games.
“When I was playing on it, I was basically playing on one leg, kind of just hobbling around, just trying to find a way where I could do what I can to help my team win,” Westbrook said. “But at the same time, I was in pain.”
The play has been dissected and thoroughly debated since, some believing it was a dirty tactic, or at least an unnecessary one. Others view it as a hustle play. Westbrook said he’s watched the replay “numerous times.” He doesn’t have an opinion on it that he cared to share publicly.
“That’s really something I can’t answer,” said Westbrook, who has not heard from Beverley. “I just hope it wasn’t a dirty play.”
The following day’s MRI revealed a cartilage tear, requiring surgery. Initial speculation suggested that Westbrook would possibly return in a matter of weeks.
“It was stressful,” Westbrook said. “My knee was hurting. I got home it was hurting. The morning after it was hurting. Getting MRIs is always scary because I feel like every time somebody gets an MRI they always come back with some bad news.”
On Friday morning, Westbrook got his. The Thunder’s second-leading scorer and co-leader would miss the remainder of the postseason.
“It’s tough, man,” Westbrook said. “I don’t want to let my team down. I want to compete. I love playing and I want to play in every game I’m able to and able to walk. This time I wasn’t able to walk and run like I was supposed to.”
There is no timetable when Westbrook will begin such activities, but he will stay in Oklahoma City to rehab this summer rather than return to his usual offseason home in Southern California.
Westbrook said his time off the court and high above it will make him a better and smarter player next season.
“I will come back a better player mentally. I think that’s the biggest thing, mentally it’s going to be a big step for myself and moving forward with this team,” Westbrook said. “I get the opportunity to kind of sit back — this is my first time basically seeing the game from a different view — and watch a whole game when I’m not playing. It’s different.”
And, oh yes, Westbrook even revealed a surprisingly self-deprecating sense of humor.
“It’s something that can help me to see some of the things that you guys may see or somebody may see — the crazy shots I shoot — so I can sit back and see, so I think it’s good for me.”