It's not often that a 51-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist outing that included a game-winning shot in double-overtime gets overshadowed, but the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't an ordinary team.
Even though Kevin Durant went off yet again and provided supporters of these Western Conference contenders with another big performance down the stretch of a tight contest against the Toronto Raptors, the main narrative coming out of a 119-118 victory has to revolve around Russell Westbrook.
Unfortunately, we're not talking about another insane performance from the uber-athletic point guard, but rather an injury.
During the third quarter, Westbrook took a step forward as Kyle Lowry lunged at him. The two floor generals collided, and the OKC 1-guard's knee took the brunt of the impact, buckling laterally and leaving him motionless.
As Westbrook retreated down the sideline and slammed his hand against the hardwood, it was clear something was wrong.
It was an innocent play, without any semblance of intent on Lowry's part, but it still resulted in an injury that could force Westbrook to miss even more action during a season that has seen him suit up in only 37 games. According to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry, the injury is initially being diagnosed as a knee sprain:
Russell Westbrook is being listed on the injury report with a right knee sprain. He will not return.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 22, 2014
Breathe a deep sigh of relief, Thunder fans.
This could've been far worse. As Will Carroll, the in-house injury expert for Bleacher Report, points out, the first diagnosis is kind of a positive because all of Westbrook's previous injuries were dealing with the meniscus:
Westbrook injury being called a sprain. That's very significant. All previous issues were meniscus.— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) March 22, 2014
Reading Westbrook's body language after the game is also cause for optimism:
Westbrook said he feels fine no pain doesn't expect to miss time— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 22, 2014
Westbrook sitting in locker room doesn't look too down or anything. Smiling, joking with teammates— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 22, 2014
Russell Westbrook was in great spirits after the game. Left the arena walking just fine. No brace. No crutches. Doesn't expect to miss time.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 22, 2014
Westbrook himself even said after the proceedings that he won't miss time.
"It feels good, I won't know much more until tomorrow, but as of right now, I feel good. No, I don't expect to miss no time.” Westbrook— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 22, 2014
Despite the existence of that quote, Westbrook isn't the one who handles these decisions. Ultimately, the Thunder will make sure the fierce competitor undergoes all necessary tests, and it's likely they handle this situation delicately, making sure nothing serious develops out of negligence.
OKC isn't out of the woods yet. It's notoriously difficult to diagnose a severe injury right after a game, and the point guard will likely undergo an MRI to determine the full extent of the damage caused by his collision with Lowry.
And as Rotowire's injury analyst Jeff Stotts tweets, there's a chance this is an MCL sprain:
I've watched the Russell Westbrook injury multiple times and the mechanism of injury is pretty typical for a MCL sprain.— Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) March 22, 2014
Marc Gasol is another player who sprained his MCL this season, and the Memphis Grizzlies big man missed almost eight weeks of action during his recovery. Of course, it's too soon to speculate about the extent of Westbrook's injury, as sprains have different grades for severity.
And we don't even know if this is a sprain at all. There's always a chance Westbrook could have suffered a minor tweak and been kept out for precautionary reasons, as OKC doesn't want to risk losing its star player for an extended period of time.
But regardless, this isn't the type of news the Thunder want on such a night.
After all, the double-overtime victory was drama-packed. I can safely say it's one of the most entertaining games I've watched this season, and it was filled with enough madness that you might have expected it to further bust your bracket during a night that also saw Duke and VCU go down during the NCAA tournament action.
Durant even made history:
Kevin Durant: 51 Pts, 12 Reb, 7 Ast; 1st player to reach those totals in a game since Michael Jordan in 1992— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
None of it matters, though.
Westbrook going down has to be the leading story, simply because it interrupts the Thunder's process of building chemistry during the closing stretch of the season. As Carroll relayed in an email, there's potential for the point guard to miss a significant amount of time now:
Despite the speculation based on one angle of video, it's impossible to say what exactly happened to Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has had issues with his meniscus, necessitating multiple surgeries, but after his knee buckled Friday night, the word was "sprain." That, by definition, is a ligament problem. While he is likely to have an MRI, the medical staff will have an idea from manual testing. If it's a low-grade sprain of any sort, Westbrook will miss up to a couple weeks. Anything more than that, and he's going to be hard-pressed to be ready for the opening of the playoffs given his history. The Thunder did everything they could to keep his knee good for the long term. One awkward move could have ruined those plans.
OKC can keep its collective fingers crossed, but any sort of sprain is going to be problematic. Hearing "hard-pressed to be ready for the opening of the playoffs" isn't exactly a positive, even if there's only a chance of that happening, not a certainty by any means.
"So?" you might be asking. "Why does this matter since the Thunder were so successful last time Westbrook missed time?"
Here's the short answer: The playoffs are different than the regular season.
Now for the longer one.
The Thunder were absolutely dominant while Durant was functioning as a one-man show. He consistently put up excellent performances and left no doubt that he was the leading MVP candidate while keeping Oklahoma City right near the top of the Western Conference standings. When Westbrook returned, things only got worse.
But again, that was during the regular season.
The return of a ball-dominant superstar is always going to require an adjustment process, as so many of the distribution tendencies and play calls shift rather dramatically. That's the reason for the short-term dip in effectiveness.
However, the Thunder want to be at full strength for the postseason, when defenses buckle down, rotations shrink, the level of the opposition increases and every possession matters even more than normal.
And they won't be at full strength without Westbrook fully integrated into the lineup, something they'd been drawing close to before he went back down.
Remember, Basketball-Reference shows that the Thunder still outscore the opposition by an additional 1.1 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the court, even if it seems like they've struggled on the surface level.
Uncertainty defines this injury to Westbrook's knee, but it's still important news. Even on a night that saw the Thunder win a nail-biter and Durant become the first player this season to top 50 points in two different games, it's what matters most.