Many Oklahoma City fans will look back on this season and point to the moment when Russell Westbrook went down as the reason for their playoff demise.
Yet as much of an impact as it had on the Thunder and their offense, Westbrook's injury wasn't the only thing that derailed their title hopes. It certainly didn't help—which we definitely know to be true now—but the reality is that no Westbrook didn't necessarily mean no hope for the Thunder this postseason.
It just happened to turn out that way.
There's little doubting the impact Westbrook has on the team, and as many have attested to following his injury, it's an impact we never quite understood.
Until now, that is, when an eliminated Thunder and frustrated Kevin Durant portray exactly how important Westbrook was (and still is) to this franchise. That fact needs to be understood first and foremost, for you'll be hard-pressed to hear anyone saying the absence of Westbrook didn't have an impact on the Thunder or damage their title hopes.
This is probably gonna hurt to hear, OKC fans...but in last season's Western Conference Semis, Russell Westbrook averaged 25.6 PPG.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) May 16, 2013
However, as important as he is, his injury wasn't the only thing that derailed those hopes.
After all, the Western Conference powerhouse was still averaging 3.2 points per game better than the league average with Westbrook's absence.
According to ESPN, their average points per game without Westbrook was still more than that of the Indiana Pacers, who appear likely to win through to the Eastern Conference Finals provided they can finish off the New York Knicks. So to straight up say that no Westbrook equals bad offense isn't at all correct—especially when you have Kevin Durant (and his current form) running your offense.
Despite a cold night from the field, Kevin Durant just eclipsed 20 points for the 37th consecutive playoff game.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 16, 2013
Just on Durant—it's interesting to see how he fared sans Westbrook.
We know Westbrook is a great player to have alongside Durant because it means teams can't double-team Durant all the time and he gives great assists and so on, but the numbers suggest that even without the star guard, Durant was more than capable of leading the offense.
Up until Game 5, Durant was still making 53.4 percent of his shots from inside the arc. His true shooting percentage was still up over 60 percent. As crazy as it seems, Durant was in fact a more efficient scorer than Golden State's superstar Steph Curry this postseason.
And that's without Westbrook by his side the entire time, which kind of pokes holes in the argument that Durant is a terrible scorer without his sidekick.
Yes, Westbrook's absence did mean Durant couldn't carry the offensive load as well as he did before, but the star forward still did a pretty good job in his absence, which leaves us with just one main reason for the Thunder's playoff demise.
Westbrook's injury and subsequent absence hurt, but the reality was that the Thunder weren't good enough to beat the Grizzlies even with him in their squad.
They weren't strong enough in the half court; they didn't muscle up on defense, and they didn't make those big shots that will win you NBA championships.
Official NBA.com statistics (h/t ESPN) show that in the final five minutes of a game (or "clutch minutes"), just three players on the Thunder's squad scored any points. Serge Ibaka didn't score a point, whilst Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Martin didn't even attempt a shot—showing that their offensive problems haven't been just Westbrook's fault.
The Thunder simply didn't step up at either end of the court when Westbrook went down, and they've reaped the consequences as a result of those inadequacies.
There's such a distinct lack of discipline defensively for OKC that had it been instituted, it'd mitigate the loss of Russ.— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballSource) May 16, 2013
Nobody is saying that Westbrook's injury was a blessing or that it's easy to lose a guy who finished top 10 in MVP voting this season. But when you consider what the Thunder still had to work with and the direct impact of Westbrook's absence, they still could very well have won this series provided they stepped up and took some of the slack.
They didn't, however, and we all know how the story ends.
Credit should be given to the Grizzlies, who stormed back in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers and have carried that momentum with them ever since.
Would the Thunder have beaten the Grizzlies if they had Russell Westbrook?
Were it not for Durant's game-winner in Game 1, they could very well have swept Oklahoma City this series, and it wouldn't have been undeserved at all given how well they've played defensively.
But even with that, the Thunder can only blame themselves. They had their chances without Westbrook, and they couldn't step up—not consistently, and certainly not as a team.
And you can't fault Westbrook for that.