The Oklahoma City Thunder are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and entered the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. That may still be the case, but their road has suddenly gotten a lot tougher as they will be without point guard Russell Westbrook.
According to Sean Highkin of USA Today, Westbrook will miss the remainder of the playoffs after undergoing surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus. Westbrook suffered the injury during a freak play involving Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverly in Game 2 of the first-round series between OKC and Houston.
The Thunder hold a 2-0 lead in the series, but the Rockets have new life and could get back into it with a Game 3 win. Here are three players who must step up for OKC in Westbrook's absence and lead the Thunder to victory in Game 3 and in the series as a whole.
While the Thunder will probably take a by-committee approach in replacing Westbrook, point guard Reggie Jackson is likely to step into the starting lineup. Because of that, fans will expect him to step up and produce. Jackson took a big step forward in his second season as he played in 70 games and averaged over five points per game in 14 minutes per contest. He wasn't asked to do a lot because of Westbrook and Kevin Durant carrying the scoring load, but he has the ability to score the basketball.
Jackson was used largely as a spot-up shooter during the regular season, however, that isn't really his game. He is a quick slasher capable of getting to the basket and getting to the free-throw line. That was the case with Westbrook as well, so Jackson is a fine replacement. He obviously won't be as explosive and productive as Westbrook was, but he can bring some similar attributes to the table.
The great thing about Jackson stepping in is that he can defer to Durant and play a supporting role rather than worrying about being Westbrook. Jackson is an up-tempo player who fits the Oklahoma City offense well, so he will probably surprise some people with his play. Provided he increases his scoring and gets others involved, he'll be a very solid player for the Thunder for the rest of the playoffs.
Which player must step up most in the absence of Russell Westbrook?
Shooting guard Kevin Martin had big shoes to fill entering the season as he came to Oklahoma City in the trade that sent James Harden to Houston. The Thunder didn't necessarily want to lose Harden, but they couldn't agree on a contract and viewed Martin as a suitable replacement. That was certainly the case during the regular season as Martin was a dangerous offensive player off the bench who averaged 14 points and more than two three pointers made per game. He is somewhat of a liability on the defensive end, but there is no doubt that he can shoot the lights out.
Martin won't be playing point guard in Westbrook's absence, but he will be tasked with replacing some of his offensive production. Westbrook averaged more than 23 points per game during the regular season, so a few guys will have to add to their point totals in order to make up for that. Martin has never been afraid to shoot, but he was never anything more than a third option behind Durant and Westbrook this season.
He'll now have more license and freedom to contribute offensively with Westbrook on the shelf, though. Martin is a volume shooter who can really take over a game when he gets hot, and the Thunder may need him to do that at some point. He is a very different type of player than Westbrook, but he could very well fill the scoring void.
Every good team needs experienced veterans on the bench in order to succeed in the playoffs, and the Thunder have point guard Derek Fisher. While Fisher is no longer the player he once was at 38 years of age, he is a five-time NBA Champion and he has seen it all in the postseason. Fisher is a steadying presence whenever he is on the floor and his role will suddenly be expanded significantly with Westbrook unable to play for the rest of the playoffs.
Fisher only played 24 games for OKC during the regular season and averaged around 14 minutes per contest, but he'll likely be asked to do a little more now. He has limitations as the speed and athleticism are eroding, but he makes great decisions with the ball and can still shoot from outside. He doesn't possess a fraction of the explosiveness that Westbrook does, but he knows how to win in the playoffs and he will do everything in his power to succeed.
Jackson is going to be the guy who carries the load with Westbrook out, but Fisher will spell him at times and take over if things are getting a bit too sloppy. Even if Fisher doesn't do a ton on the floor, his experience will be of great importance. He may just need to put his arm around Jackson and tell him what he is seeing in order to help the youngster. Fisher is a very valuable player and he is even more important now that Westbrook is out.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter