The Oklahoma City Thunder raced into the postseason with 10 victories in their final 13 regular-season games. They hit full throttle with a commanding 120-point showing in their first playoff outing.
But after Russell Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending torn meniscus in a collision with Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley late in the second quarter of Game 2, coach Scott Brooks' team has struggled just getting into gear of late.
Save for its series-clinching 103-94 Game 6 win over the Rockets, Oklahoma City's point total has decreased or remained consistent in every game since its explosive point guard was sent to the trainers' room and ultimately to the operating table.
With three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant in the fold, Brooks still employs one of the highest-powered motors in the league. But what good is all that horsepower when there's no one to drive the car?
With Westbrook out of the equation, Brooks has three different ways to initiate his offense.
The first choice, and perhaps the most logical one, is sophomore point guard Reggie Jackson. He's the closest Westbrook clone on the roster, possessing quickness and elite athleticism inside his 6'3", 208-pound frame.
Jackson has seen the lion's share of the point guard minutes (33 per game) and manned Westbrook's starting spot in the six games he's missed. He has the handles to complement his quicks, a three-point stroke that's more effective now (30.3 percent in the postseason) than it ever has been (22.3 percent for his career) and the strength to finish plays at the rim.
But he also has just 115 regular-season games on his NBA resume, and his 14.2 minutes per game this season set a career high. He can put up points in bunches (he's averaging 15.2 in his last six games), but his decision-making is very much a work in progress (3.0 assists against 2.2 turnovers since Westbrook went down).
The basketball world cried foul when Westbrook was taking shots away from Durant, even though he was playing at an All-Star level. Imagine the reaction when those shots are swiped by a second-year guard still getting his feet wet in the league.
If Brooks sacrifices pace for experience, he has 38-year-old veteran Derek Fisher as an option. Fisher has appeared in nearly 240 playoff games over his 17-year career and can fill a hand with his championship bling.
But he never was built to run with Brooks' gazelles, using his intuition and basketball IQ to help mask his athletic shortcomings. The Thunder are still learning the value of each possession (they're averaging 14.5 turnovers in their Western Conference semifinal clash with the Memphis Grizzlies), meaning a steady diet of half-court sets may not be in their best interest.
Finally there's the lone superstar presence left on Brooks' active list, Durant.
The 24-year-old scoring savant is wise beyond his basketball years, and his incredible length (many swear he's being shortchanged by his listed 6'9" height) makes him an intriguing fit as a point-forward. Not to mention he's fresh off a career year in assists, dishing out 4.6 per contest.
But every offensive opportunity he creates for his teammates is one that he can't take himself. There's plenty to be said about diversifying one's talents, but with no Westbrook (and no James Harden) in the mix, Brooks can't afford to have his best offensive weapon straying too far from his natural scorer's mentality.
Memphis' twin towers, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and underrated point guard, Mike Conley, make a half-court series a nightmare scenario for Oklahoma City.
Brooks has to live with Jackson's growing pains and allow the speedster to set the tempo of this series even if the results aren't always ideal. His bigs can't hang in the half court, but they could leave their lumbering counterparts choking in the dust if he can transform these games into track meets.
Westbrook's injury brought with it doomsday predictions for the defending Western Conference champions.
But the plan to build on last season's success doesn't have to be lost; not if Brooks is willing to hand over the keys to his best equipped driver.