With the stunning news that Russell Westbrook is slated for surgery on his right knee that will keep him out indefinitely, the Oklahoma City Thunder's NBA title hopes have taken a serious—and potentially critical—blow.
Royce Young of CBSSports.com dropped the bombshell on Friday morning:
It's unclear when the injury to Westbrook's knee occurred, though according to Dan Devine of Yahoo!, the play that featured Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley knocking knees with OKC's feisty point guard in the second quarter of Game 2 is a likely candidate.
If that's the case, it sure helps explain Westbrook's furious reaction.
Going forward, it's hard to view the Thunder in the same way without a healthy Westbrook to pair with Kevin Durant. His unbridled aggression and raw athleticism gave OKC an edge that it doesn't get from any of the other players on its roster.
Attitude is hard to quantify, but Westbrook's was critical to Oklahoma City's identity.
From a statistical standpoint, the absence of the dynamic point guard is pretty significant. According to 82games.com, Westbrook's presence on the court helped OKC score nearly six more points per 100 possessions on offense.
His ability to put pressure on the defense by penetrating was key to freeing up Durant and the rest of OKC's wing players for open perimeter looks. And anyone who spent time watching the Thunder this year knows that the quirky Durant-Westbrook pick-and-roll was one of the few non-isolation options in Scott Brooks' relatively unimaginative late-game offensive sets.
That wrinkle is gone now, as is the ignition switch in OKC's transition attack.
In place of Westbrook's dynamism, the Thunder will have to turn to the plodding predictability of Derek Fisher and the intriguing (but as yet unproven) potential of Reggie Jackson. However you slice it, both of those players represent a massive downgrade.
All's not lost for OKC, though.
While the severity of Westbrook's meniscus tear is not yet known, there's certainly a recent precedent for a quick recovery. Metta World Peace came back from a similar procedure in just two weeks, and he's hardly the model of physical durability that Westbrook is.
Remember, the Thunder point guard has been historically sturdy. His 439 straight games (along with the fact that he never missed a single high school or college contest) make it seem like an uncommonly speedy recovery is not just likely but almost certain.
Realistically, the Thunder are good enough to take care of the Rockets with or without their All-Star point guard. And if Westbrook can come back in something like the two weeks it took MWP to return to the floor, he'll be back in the lineup somewhere in the middle of OKC's second-round series.
It's unlikely that he'd be at full health for another couple of weeks, but World Peace has proved very recently that a quick return to the court is possible.
In the meantime, it'll be Durant's time to shine.
Critics of Westbrook have complained for years that his aggression and shoot-first style have taken shots away from the vastly more efficient Durant. Well, now it's time to see what an OKC offense that features a heavier dose of KD looks like.
For what it's worth, Durant has been increasing his ball-handling duties incrementally all season long. In Games 1 and 2 against Houston, he spent even more time bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense.
More shots and more touches for Durant can hardly be a bad thing. And because he's been taking on an increasingly important role as a distributor, KD should be prepared to help out as a facilitator as well.
OKC handled the Clips in all three meetings during the regular season, largely because they had no answer for Durant. Memphis was a bigger struggle, and the Thunder will need a massive effort from KD and their interior players to overcome a team that took two out of three games from them during the regular season.
Over the course of the year, though, OKC was the class of the Western Conference. Without Westbrook, the road to the NBA Finals gets much tougher. But it won't be impossible.
Westbrook is a fantastic player, and it's crazy to argue that his absence does anything but hurt the Thunder.
But here's the thing: The Miami Heat are still a cut above OKC, even when Westbrook is fully healthy. If anything kills Oklahoma City's title hopes, it's the fact that Miami is playing on a different level than anyone else right now.
But because he has a shot at a quick recovery and because OKC isn't likely to face a truly elite foe until at least the Western Conference finals, Westbrook's injury doesn't necessarily alter the Thunder's title chances.
In other words, if the Thunder fail to win the whole thing this year, it won't be because of the injury to their point guard; it'll be because they weren't quite good enough to begin with.