The wild, woolly Western Conference is back up for grabs even more than ever.
Just when it looked like everything was coming together again for the rolling Thunder.
Just when Russell Westbrook was looking unstoppable and indestructible.
Just two days after Westbrook posted a Christmas triple-double in just three quarters of action against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Oklahoma City guard underwent arthroscopic knee surgery that is expected to keep him out until after the All-Star break.
Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman was the first to report that Westbrook had the procedure done Friday morning on the same right knee that knocked him out of the playoffs when he tore the lateral meniscus following a collision with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley last April. He also required a follow-up procedure to drain a fluid build-up on Oct. 1. Westbrook was not experiencing pain in the knee, but when swelling continued to return, it was determined that the operation was necessary.
Reggie Jackson will again step into the role as starting point guard in Westbrook’s absence beginning with tonight’s game at Charlotte (7 ET, League Pass). But that move will weaken the Thunder bench.
If Westbrook does not return until after the All-Star break, it would mean he’ll miss 27 games. That’s a significant portion of the schedule and could have a dramatic effect on the playoff seedings in the West, where there is little breathing room.
Once Westbrook went out last spring, the Thunder went from being a No. 2 seed and favorites to return to the NBA Finals to a team that relied too heavily on Kevin Durant and was bounced in the second round by Memphis.
In a season when there is a logjam of wannabe contenders at the top of the West standings, any small slip in the standings by the Thunder — currently No. 2 at 23-5, one-half game behind Portland — could make for a much tougher postseason road next spring. The Thunder are taking the pro-active approach because they know it’s more important to have Westbrook at 100 percent in April.
Westbrook has been averaging 21.4 points, 8.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds this season and looked every bit as athletic and aggressive as he was before the injury.
“You watch him and you ask yourself, ‘This guy is coming back from knee surgery?’” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks just before Westbrook dropped 31 points and eight assists on the Spurs last week in San Antonio. “I’ve also been a supporter of Russell from the start, but right now he’s playing better than ever. I don’t want to play without him again.”
Now the Thunder will have to do just that and hope they can hold their ground until Westbrook gets back.