It was the injury that arguably reshaped the NBA's entire Western Conference.
On April 24, Russell Westbrook nondescriptly jogged to the sideline as head coach Scott Brooks called for a timeout in Game 2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets. Houston guard Patrick Beverley decided to use Westbrook's laissez-faire ball-handing on the play against him, going in hard for the steal and hoping to make a heads-up play.
It didn't go the way anyone expected.
Beverley's knee collided with Westbrook's, torquing the Thunder guard's sideways and sending him to the ground. When Westbrook rose, he was hobbling and obviously distressed, smacking his hand hard off the scorer's table.
Although Westbrook was able to stay in that game, he was later diagnosed with a torn lateral meniscus and underwent surgery. The Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies one round later, their Western Conference championship defense engulfed.
But the injury was seen as a relatively "good" knee injury if such a thing exists. His ACL was still intact, and there was seemingly no question that Westbrook would be available for the 2013-14 season.
Right until there was. Westbrook's recovery—as many knee injuries across the NBA have been of late—became a long, arduous process that eventually slipped well into this season because of complications.
With Westbrook making his season debut on Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns, it's only right then to look back at that process. About the optimism. About the setbacks. About the painstaking effort it took for him to return.
With that in mind, here is a complete timeline of Westbrook's road to recovery.
April 27: Westbrook Undergoes First Surgery
In the first few days post-injury, there was an undercurrent of speculation that Westbrook would return at some point in the postseason. The Thunder had announced their star guard would undergo knee surgery, but the indefinite timetable placed on their initial announcement gave some level of hope.
So much for that.
Three days after going down with his torn LCL, Westbrook underwent what was thought to be successful surgery on his right knee. Thunder general manager Sam Presti released a statement on behalf of the organization:
Russell’s health and well being are obviously our number one priority through this process and today’s procedure helped solidify our belief that Russell will have many productive years of basketball in his future. Although we are of course disappointed that Russell will be unable to return to the floor with his teammates this season, the opportunity to repair the meniscus as opposed to remove it was the best possible scenario for Russell’s long term health as a player and person.
And with that, this elongated process got underway.
May: Thunder Eliminated from Playoffs, Derrick Rose Offers Westbrook Advice
Westbrook, of course, was replaced in the starting lineup by Reggie Jackson. The Thunder looked for Jackson to increase his primary ball-handler role, while Kevin Martin was supposed to take on an additional scoring burden.
Let's just say neither worked out all that well once Memphis' elite defense came to town. The Grizzlies dispatched Oklahoma City in only five games, pulling off a pseudo-sweep in the final four. Kevin Durant's attempts to single-handedly carry the club proved fable, with the game's second-best player facing an entire defensive game plan constructed to stop him.
For Westbrook, who often receives the brunt of the scorn when the Thunder lose, it was status-affirming. But for the Thunder, who looked ready to challenge the Miami Heat once more in the Finals, it was heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Westbrook was receiving some sage advice from someone who had been in a similar situation. According to Royce Young of CBS Sports, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose told Westbrook to make sure he went through rehab the right way:
Russ said he talked to Derrick Rose a couple days after his injury. Said Rose told him to "take his time" and "listen to his body."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 16, 2013
At that time, Westbrook was on crutches and everything seemed to be going as planned. Little did anyone know how similar two star guards' situations would wind up.
June 18: Russ Ditches Crutches in Awesome Fashion
The great thing about being hurt at the end of the season is that you can rehab mostly in private. There aren't any NBA-required pressers or status updates necessary. What's great for the player, however, is often frustrating for those trying to figure out what in the blue hell is going on.
Luckily, Russ used his time off the floor to become active on Vine. I say luckily because Westbrook's introduction to the Vine world gave us this gem:
Oh, right. This is about his knee injury. Sorry about that. Westbrook also used the social-media sharing device to tell fans he was off crutches a couple weeks after signing up for the service:
But, like, for real. Taylor Swift wins out.
Late September: Training Camp Opens, Ambiguity Causes Concern
As you may have guessed based on our three-month time jump, the Thunder are notoriously tight-lipped about their players. I mean, the biggest update we got between June and September came when Westbrook was profiled and honored during New York's Fashion Week.
Salvation—at least in the form of information—would not come until the Thunder reported for training camp late in September. Westbrook's injury was understandably topic A, B and C when the scrum of reporters finally got their opportunity to peck away at the wall of silence.
One problem: The information Thunder fans received wasn't exactly positive. Westbrook was yet to be cleared by team doctors to return to basketball activities, and general manager Sam Presti told The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry that the club would not rush bringing him back.
“We expect him to take part in parts of camp and work his way through different parts until he's ultimately cleared for unrestricted activity,” Presti said. “But it's all going to be contingent upon how his body reacts to the additional load that he'll be carrying.”
Westbrook didn't do much much to help matters. When asked for a possible return date, the 24-year-old guard only added to the ambiguity.
“I'm not sure,” Westbrook said.
Oct. 1: Westbrook Undergoes Shocking Second Knee Surgery
Remember that ambiguity from six words ago? Yeah, it came for a pretty good reason.
It seems that Westbrook was having continuous swelling (without pain) in his knee that persisted despite treatment. The Thunder then sent him to California for a second opinion, during which it was discovered that a loose stitch caused the discomfort and that an arthroscopic surgery was needed.
Westbrook underwent the procedure on Oct. 1, and the Thunder revealed that he would miss at least the first four weeks of the regular season. The team took a mostly positive stance on the situation, with Presti noting it was better to find out about this injury now rather than later.
"We thought it was important to identify the source of the swelling as well because we didn't want to be in a position where we're faced with this decision in an on-again, off-again situation as the season progressed," Presti said, per USA Today's Sam Amick.
That (again) left the Thunder scrambling for a second scorer. Jackson could return to the starting lineup on opening night, but Martin's departure for the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason made Westbrook's injury all that more harmful.
With the Western Conference perhaps at its best in history, many viewed this setback as something that could push OKC back to the third or fourth seed.
Oct. 29: Timeline Surprisingly Pushed Up; Westbrook Could Return in Mid-November
Those aforementioned worries were all but assuaged a few weeks later, as the Thunder prepared to open their 2013-14 season. Although no firm confirmation was given on the subject, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Westbrook's recovery had gone far better than expected.
How much better? Well, enough to slash his expected recovery time by two thirds (in time that matters).
Sources close to the situation told Wojnarowski that Westbrook could return as early as two weeks into the NBA regular season. While no one from the Thunder was willing to confirm the report, Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Kevin Durant didn't exactly deny it, either.
“I read the report,” Brooks said, via The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. "He has to continue to go through his rehab. And once he gets medical clearance to play in a game, that will happen. Until then, we’re just focusing on day-to-day as a group.”
“I don’t know if I can say or not how I feel,” Durant said. "But he looks good. Like I said, I don’t know the timetables or what the doctors are saying, but he looks good to me. Russell put in a lot of work, so I expected him to look like this. So we’ll see when he gets back out there. We’re waiting for him.”
Nov. 3: Westbrook Makes His Return vs. Phoenix
Westbrook continued to surprise, officially making his return in the Thunder's third regular-season game, per Mayberry via Twitter.
R. Westbrook has passed all medical/physical benchmarks in rehab. Russ, his reps, physicians & medical team agree. He will play tonight.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) November 3, 2013
The Thunder quickly confirmed Mayberry's report. According to The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, Presti made the following statement on his star player's return:
Statement from Sam Presti on Russell Westbrook's return: pic.twitter.com/Y72p39zYWa— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) November 3, 2013
Westbrook has been cleared by all parties to return to action, and it will be interesting to see how he looks in his first game since injuring the knee.