Russell Westbrook Injury: How Thunder Will Adjust Without Star PG in Playoffs

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Russell Westbrook Injury: How Thunder Will Adjust Without Star PG in Playoffs
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Oklahoma City Thunder star point guard Russell Westbrook is not walking through the door for the rest of the 2013 playoffs. 

The team's official Twitter account helped break the news on Saturday afternoon that he underwent successful meniscus surgery and will miss the remainder of the season:

Reggie Jackson is expected to start Game 3 of OKC's first-round series against Houston in his place. 

The elephant in the room here is obvious—how does Oklahoma City adjust without a player who has been key to both winning the regular season out West and taking a 2-0 advantage over the Houston Rockets?

As this particularly chilling tweeted picture (h/t Fox Sports) shows, Kevin Durant won't have the luxury of watching his teammate break anyone down off the dribble, lead the fast break or lean on for support when his shot isn't falling this postseason:

There's no sugarcoating this situation—head coach Scott Brooks and staff have their hands full with devising a plan that not only allows the Thunder to get past the Rockets over the next five (if necessary) games, but also a plan for the rest of the postseason. 

Losing Westbrook is no easy pill to swallow. 

The fifth-year guard is having another stellar season, was voted to the All-Star team yet again and will likely be a first or second-team All-NBA selection when voting is released later on this year. He's become nearly as unguardable as his teammate Durant, with a mid-range game that is becoming more polished by the jump shot and a fast-break presence second maybe only to LeBron James

Westbrook averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds in all 82 of OKC's regular season games, throwing in 1.8 steals and shooting over 43 percent from the field for good measure. The numbers on when he is on the court (34.9 minutes per game) are starkly different from when he's off it, as the Thunder only outscore opponents by 1.5 points when their floor leader is on the bench (h/t NBA.com).

Losing a star is never easy to swallow—no matter the team or the player. 

But the Thunder are in a playoff chase, and coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat last season. If they wanted to feel sorry for themselves they would have done so well before now, and you can bet the remaining pieces of this team are more focused on getting back to the promised land than ever. 

In the spirit of Oklahoma City's commitment to climbing back up the NBA ladder without its unquestioned dynamic young point guard, here's a look at how missing Westbrook will affect three aspects (offense, defense and locker room) of the Oklahoma City's play. 

And, maybe more importantly, how it will have to adjust to move on. 

 

Offense

Westbrook does far more than just score for the Thunder. 

He's a distributor, attacks the paint with ferocity and otherwise has the ball in hands more than Durant does when the two are both on the court. 

Despite the obvious concerns about his poor shot selection and refusal to defer to Durant at times, he's getting better at using his athleticism to be slower guards more and more, as you can see from this shot chart (h/t NBA.com) of his two playoff games.

While the concerns about his poor shot selection right inside the three-point line (6-of-23 from the top of the key in the 17-22-foot range), the numbers both inside the paint, on the baseline and in shooting three's prove that he's getting much better as a pure shooter.

I love what Westbrook was doing in the first two games of this series, but his biggest impact to the Thunder, in my opinion, was the ability to take the ball 94 feet in a matter of seconds while taking on two and sometimes three defenders en route to a layup opportunity. 

Other times he went to the free-throw line. 

The more-obvious aspects of his game that will need to be replaced (ball-handling, penetration) pale in comparison to the ability to get an easy basket after a long miss—something even more important in a serious against a team like Houston, which invariably has a lot of long misses because it shoots the three so much. 

For starters, Durant is going to have to get going early. 

Westbrook is instant offense in the early going of games, in large part because he's learned to take the ball to the basket. Expect Brooks to call some early plays to get Durant isolated at the high post and down on the block in the early going to see if Durant can provide some of that early spark and wake the rest of the team up. 

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

But, as you might expect, more double teams are headed toward Durant. Kevin McHale now has an extra defender now that he doesn't have to contend with Westbrook for the rest of this series, and that defender will probably be dispatched toward Durant if he comes anywhere inside 10-15 feet from the basket. 

That makes the Thunder's three-point shooters vital to making a deep push into the postseason. Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Martin, Jackson and Derek Fisher are all going to have to be ready and willing to step up and knock down long shots when double teams come Durant's way, while big men Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison must find a way to flash into the lane when a double team comes. 

Durant's going to get his points whether he's double-teamed or not, so what else can the Thunder do to make up for Westbrook's offensive production?

Where Westbrook has thrived getting to the basket without the help of a high screen, Reggie Jackson has not had that kind of experience or success. High screens with Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka can simulate some of Westbrook's penetration, and Ibaka loves the mid-range jumper. 

Without the threat of a big-time fast-break game, expect turnovers in the half court to be key for Oklahoma City the rest of the way. The Thunder get back points that they give up via turnovers by pushing the pace, but it's going to be hard to push the pace the same way without Westbrook's gliding to the basket. 

The X-factor in all this? Kevin Martin. 

OKC would love to have a guy like James Harden (coincidentally wearing the other team's jersey in this series) to use his point-guard like skills to handle the pressure and run the offense, but that unfortunately isn't possible. 

Martin is, though, a noted scorer who has handled his sixth-man role in OKC successfully. He can be a spark off the bench and will have to play later in games to help make up for the late scoring punch now lost for the rest of the playoffs. 

Oklahoma City is by no means doomed, and this isn't a time to fundamentally change its offense. Small adjustments and sticking true to what's worked all season will make up for this lack of Westbrook in the lineup, as will having one of the NBA's best scorers in tow. 

 

Defense

As valuable as Westbrook is on offense, he's also a capable and important defender to Oklahoma City avoiding an offensive onslaught on any given night. 

While not known for his one-on-one defending skills, Westbrook has quick and active hands that make up for his laziness on D, and when he does bear down in crunch time, the potential is certainly there to see him be a top-tier defender if the effort was there on a consistent basis. 

Where OKC runs into a problem without him is two-fold.

One, Westbrook is an excellent rebounder. His speed and ability to run the fast break make it possible for him to go into the trees and mix it up with the rest of the nine guys on the court and still make it back up the court before others do. 

Two, Jackson and Fisher, the latter in particular, are going to have a hard time staying in front of their man as the playoffs go on. Jeremy Lin is no easy guy to guard (if he returns for this series), Chris Paul and Mike Conley are both aiming to get through to Round 2 and Tony Parker is a different story entirely. 

Team defense must carry the Thunder the rest of the way. 

That means Perkins, a co-captain of the Boston Celtics' championship defense, and Ibaka, a noted swatter of all things around the rim, must step up when things break down on the perimeter. 

Sefolosha, who is the team's best overall defender, must also take on assignments against smaller guards that he might not be used to, since Westbrook was never a defensive liability or someone Brooks had to hide in defensive coverage. 

Houston is a dangerous offense team, playing at home and can shoot the three well, but Oklahoma City's defense must pick up overall to make up for the fact that the two point guards now sharing the load will likely see a few blow-byes from here on out. 

 

Locker Room

Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

This is now fully Kevin Durant's team. 

As noted by Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated, Durant has been clamoring for the chance to prove that he's the best player in the NBA, and he would officially supplant LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and a long line of contenders if he could engineer a Finals win without Westbrook. 

It's time for Durant to step up, both as a leader and a player. 

If he wants to live up to his bold statement on the cover of SI, he'll do so by completely ignoring the fact that Westbrook is gone and take on a new level of importance for this team that he has not had to do in any of OKC's playoff games so far in his career. 

Which Thunder play must step up the most?

Submit Vote vote to see results

The Thunder will rally around him for the rest of these playoffs, and will have the veteran experience of a guy like 38-year-old Fisher and ring-wearing Perkins to guide them when things get tough. 

Brooks also knows how to get the best out of this team, and you won't see any head-hanging as the Thunder continue on throughout these playoffs. 

It's gut-check time in Oklahoma.

Will Oklahoma City rise to the challenge, or crumble under the weight of replacing its top-two player? We'll start to find that out Saturday night against the Rockets, when the adjustments will be key to the Thunder avoiding a massive letdown in Round 1 and beyond. 

 

You can follow Ethan Grant on Twitter for more tasty NBA updates like this one: 


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