HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Starting tonight in Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the Thunder and Trail Blazers will play three times in a span of 43 days. Out of nowhere these two Northwest Division teams separated by 1,500 miles and 1.5 games are on the brink of a meaningful rivalry in a division too often devoid of such anticipated matchups.
Unfortunately much of the oomph vanished with Friday’s out-of-nowhere announcement from Oklahoma City that its All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook needed a third surgery on his right knee in eight months and will be out at least through the mid-February All-Star break.
The Blazers won the initial meeting, a 111-104 thriller in Portland on Dec. 4. The remainder of this regular-season series will be played with the Thunder down a superstar, potentially tipping the division title in favor of the talk-of-the-league Blazers, whose more immediate objective is preventing the season’s first two-game skid from becoming three.
OKC begins a 25-game gut-check march to the All-Star break tonight having won the first two games without Westbrook. Kevin Durant scored 34 and 33 points and the Thunder defense held Charlotte and Houston each to 86 points. The schedule is relatively favorable: 11 home games, 14 road; nine against teams currently .500 or better, 16 against teams below .500; 11 against the woeful East (exception being at Miami on Jan. 29); 14 against the West (including at Houston, at San Antonio and the three against Portland).
But that’s all the narrow focus. The wider scope is more concerning: What to make of Westbrook’s troublesome right knee upon his return? Will the league’s reigning iron man prior to the injury face chronic issues? Or has this simply been a bout of really bad luck and a short-term nuisance?
During a teleconference with reporters Friday, Thunder general manger Sam Presti called this latest setback “disappointing” and “unexpected.” He said expectations are for Westbrook again to quickly return to an elite level of play for the final stretch of the regular season. But Presti also acknowledged something new: “I think we have to understand that this is something that’s probably going to have to be managed.”
What “managed” means — a minutes restriction, taking games off — won’t be known until Westbrook comes back, and beyond.
The initial surgery in late April was clear-cut: repair a torn meniscus caused by the collision with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. As training camp neared, Westbrook’s return date wasn’t certain, but he was practicing with teammates and by all reports was looking terrific.
On media day, the day before training camp opened, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Westbrook was pain-free, but also delivered an ominous statement: There was unexplained swelling in the knee. Three days later, Westbrook had a second surgery. The arthroscopy revealed the swelling was caused by a “loose stitch.” Great news. Structurally, the knee was fine and the surgeons, a new team from the one that performed the initial operation — one, again, selected by Westbrook’s camp and not the Thunder — reported excellent progress in the ligament-healing process.
In fact, Westbrook obliterated the team’s timetable for his return by a month, missing just two games. He quickly played with such explosive force that the 25-year-old’s right knee seemed as good as new. The Thunder was rolling and Westbrook was cementing a certain fourth consecutive All-Star bid. The last two weeks might have been his best, averaging 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.
On Christmas Day, Westbrook dazzled with a triple-double. On Friday, he was back on an operating table.
“Russell has been playing pain free, but recently had experienced increased swelling,” Presti said Friday. “After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs. On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place.”
This time a loose stitch wasn’t the culprit. To be clear, this is not an alarming ACL or micro-fracture situation. The last two procedures were both arthroscopies, far less invasive than a full-blown operation. Westbrook had been playing pain-free despite the recent swelling, and for a player dependent on strength, speed and explosiveness, all traits seemed to be back in abundance.
That’s again the hope and belief. Cranky knees have drastically affected Dwyane Wade‘s ability to play effectively throughout an entire season and the Heat now closely monitor him. Wade, 31, has already sat out seven of Miami’s first 30 games to keep him fresh for the long haul. For Westbrook, with far less mileage on his body, to endure similar restraints would be a blow individually and obviously the for a Thunder team that had again looked like a worthy title contender.
“We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate,” Presti said.
Clearly a Wade-like situation at this point is not the expectation. Still, a second and third surgery were never the expectation either.