Russell Westbrook has torn his meniscus and will likely miss the remaining games of the first-round series against the Houston Rockets, but does this give the Rockets a better chance at stealing the series from the heavily-favored Oklahoma City Thunder?
Houston is down 2-0 in the series. They were embarrassed in Game 1 and put up a great fight in Game 2, ultimately taking the loss and putting themselves in a gigantic hole. That was against a team with two superstar players—Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Now, a Thunder team with Durant as its only potent offensive star makes the team much more vulnerable.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder will likely start Reggie Jackson. Derek Fisher will come off the bench. Jackson, while a solid young player in his own right, is by no means a Westbrook-type scorer. Westbrook's explosive play and ability to create make him one of the most exciting players in the NBA—and also one of the most difficult to defend.
Patrick Beverley had been given the tough assignment of guarding Westbrook for the entirety of Game 2. Despite the clear difference in talent between the two (and that's no knock on Beverley), Westbrook had problems getting open against him. He shot just 10-26 from the floor (1-7 from deep) and scored 29 points.
That would lead us to believe that Beverley would have an even easier time guarding Jackson or Fisher. While it's not always safe to assume, I think it's logical in this situation to say that neither Jackson or Fisher is going to jack up 25 shots per game and torch Houston for near 30 points.
This creates an enormous hole on offense for Oklahoma City. Durant will be asked to essentially carry the team by himself. Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha can all score when open, but none of the three are capable of playing up to the level of Westbrook.
The duo of Westbrook and Durant has been lighting up defenses since 2008-09. Westbrook has not missed a game during his career, playing in 439 straight games including the playoffs. That means that Durant has not played a single NBA game without his trusty sidekick since 2007-08—his rookie season.
While many will argue that Westbrook actually hurts the production of Durant because of the high volume of shots he takes, I'm not of that belief. Durant and Westbrook know how to play with each other having done it for so long. They have single-handedly (well, double-handedly) taken this franchise and brought them back to relevance. Without Westbrook in the lineup, can the Thunder sustain their stranglehold on the series?
I'm not so sure.
Just take a look at the matchups. The difference-maker so far for the Thunder has been that they have had an extra superstar to turn to when Durant/Westbrook was overwhelmed by defenders. The Rockets do not have this liberty.
James Harden is the lone superstar (or soon-to-be superstar) on the roster. Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin are far from such status and can not be relied upon to carry a team (for the record, Lin's status for Game 3 and beyond is also uncertain).
Now that the two teams are down to a superstar apiece, the Houston Rockets have a much better chance of stealing the series. Don't believe me? Well, let me break down the rosters for you.
I think it's best to start down low. Omer Asik is better both offensively and defensively than Kendrick Perkins. Perkins was essentially a non-factor in Game 2, scoring four points and turning the ball over four times. Asik, on the other hand, scored nine points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
The Thunder get the edge at power forward, as Ibaka is the far better player than Greg Smith. Ibaka is an animal defensively (he blocked six shots in Game 2) and can hold his own offensively. Smith is a smaller power forward that lacks the experience to compete with Ibaka.
At small forward, Durant far exceeds Parsons. I really don't think much analysis is necessary here. The same goes for the matchup of Harden versus Sefolosha/Martin. The relative differences in each matchup actually even out, so it's fair to say that the comparison is a wash at this point.
Then, it comes down to point guard. Beverley and Jackson are similar players in that neither are impact players. Each player knows his role on his respective team and gets the job done when called upon. Beverley scored 16 points in a Game 2 start, though, whereas Jackson has never started a game in his two-year NBA career.
If Lin can come back healthy by Game 4 (assuming the Rockets can win Game 3), then Houston has an even greater advantage at point guard. Lin is the better offensive player and the better facilitator. To Jackson's credit, he'll likely have one job during the game—give Durant the ball. Even still, Lin's play would far exceed that of Jackson's.
With Westbrook and his dynamic play out, the Rockets have a very good chance of coming back to win this series. The biggest obstacle at this point is not Durant, nor is it the experience of the Thunder—it's the fact that they already face a two-game deficit in the series.
The Rockets should be playing with a new confidence knowing the Thunder are a superstar down, and I fully expect them to capitalize on it. A series that was once predicted to be a layup for the Thunder has just turned interesting, and now both teams will have to play their absolute best basketball to advance to the next round.