Russell Westbrook and his torn meniscus will be talked about ad nauseum for as long as the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the playoffs, but they've actually got games to play while the chatter continues. Game 3 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets tips off Saturday night.
Westbrook tore the meniscus in his right knee during Oklahoma City's 105-102 Game 2 win over the Rockets after Patrick Beverley's hip made contact with Westbrook's knee in an attempt to steal the ball in the second quarter.
The Thunder will be without Westbrook indefinitely, as no timetable has been set for a return, and they'll have to start their march without him on Saturday as they go on the road to take on the Rockets.
Houston was nearly able to steal Game 2 in Oklahoma City, coming back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter. It fell just short thanks to some Kevin Durant heroics, but the Rockets could end up making a series out of this after all.
Time: Saturday April 27, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Series Record: Oklahoma City Thunder 2, Houston Rockets 0
Key Storyline: Replacing Westbrook
Somewhere, somehow, the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to have to replace the 24 points per game that Russell Westbrook was giving them so far in the playoffs.
Obviously, it's not going to be as simple as giving more minutes to Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher and leaving it at that. There's going to be a lot of spreading out of the 34 minutes that Westbrook averaged in the first two games.
One of the main subplots to follow is going to be how well Jackson does, as he will presumably be inserted into the starting lineup. Playing 21 minutes a game so far has been perfect for Jackson, who has been scoring efficiently and doing a fine job distributing.
However, manning the front line against the opposition's top defender (sure, it's Houston, but Beverley gave Westbrook fits in Game 2) while playing around 30 minutes is going to be a huge change.
I would expect Scott Brooks to go with a backcourt combination of Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin at times with Durant as the primary ball-handler, but I'm not sure if he would mix it up any more than that.
As far as the Thunder without Westbrook on the floor go, they shoot over two-percent worse from the field and four-percent worse from the three-point line.
Oklahoma City does average 5.6 points more than it allows per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the bench, but that's compared to the 11.1-point-per-100-possessions advantage that the Thunder have with Westbrook on the floor.
The only thing that could get dicey is the chemistry that the Thunder have between that point-guard and small-forward spot.
Injury Report (Via CBSSports.com)
Rockets: Jeremy Lin, PG: Chest, questionable for Game 3 vs. Oklahoma City
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, PG: Knee, out until at least early May
Projected Starting Lineups
Rockets: Patrick Beverley PG, James Harden SG, Chandler Parsons SF, Greg Smith PF, Omer Asik C
Thunder: Reggie Jackson PG, Thabo Sefolosha SG, Kevin Durant SF, Serge Ibaka PF, Kendrick Perkins C
Oklahoma City Wins if...
Kevin Durant really doesn't want to be No. 2 anymore.
Durant is on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated touting his exhaustion with being second-best at everything.
This quote graces the cover:
I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second…. I’m done with it.
It seems to me that this is a good time to start being first.
While Westbrook was never the guy holding him back from being the top player in the game, he has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate why there should be a conversation debating the top player in the weeks (and possibly months) that Westbrook spends rehabbing.
Durant can do his best to distribute the ball, which he should, but there's also going to be a ton of pressure on him to pick up the scoring slack with little drop-off in efficiency.
It may just be the first round of the playoffs, but Durant can start to prove that his title of "second best" might be fit for somebody else.
Houston Wins if...
It avoids the huge holes.
What the Rockets proved to everybody in Game 2 is that they're fit to run with the Thunder, but they just might be in catch-up mode along the way.
The biggest problem with that is Houston allowed itself to be forced to take a step backward when its defense broke down for an extended period of time and the Thunder busted out a 15-point lead in Game 2.
Once the run was stopped and Oklahoma City's momentum had faded, Houston ripped it away with a flurry of three-pointers and fast-break cuts to the basket.
Basically, the Rockets proved that they are able to play their style of game while avoiding getting into a sprinting match with the Thunder.
If the Rockets can come out and gallop again, outrunning the Thunder and doing everything in their power to put together some semblance of a defense, the Houston crowd should be enough to get them over the final hump and turn this into a series.
So here's the question: Is it more likely that the Rockets can come together as a team and finally run their offense for an entire game, or will Kevin Durant take on the persona of top cop in the NBA?
What helps the Thunder is that Reggie Jackson, who is Westbrook's presumed replacement in the starting lineup, is a fine defender who could fit perfectly into the system they need to slow down the Houston defense.
His long arms and athletic style of play allow him to put together an effort very similar to that of Westbrook, although it will still be an obvious downgrade in defensive presence.
At this point, I've got more faith in the Oklahoma City transformation post-Westbrook than I do in the Rockets consistently running their offense. After all, Houston did just spend two games shooting below 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from the three-point line.
The Rockets should make a game out of it, but the Thunder still will be too much, even without their second banana.
Oklahoma City Thunder 102, Houston Rockets 99