Thunder Struck: Russell Westbrook’s Injury and What It Means for Oklahoma City

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The first thought is one of genuine sadness, just as it has been with Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, David Lee, Andrew Bynum, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, and every other important player on a playoff team who has suffered a season-ending injury over the last calendar year. This is a truly unprecedented run of star injuries. But with apologies to those players, plus Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, and so many others, the sadness here is a little bit deeper in a big-picture sense.

My personal fear about the NBA this season, and about these NBA playoffs, was that they constituted an overlong non-drama with a predictable ending. The Heat are 35-1 in the last 36 games in which LeBron James has played. That is very nearly half an NBA season, with one loss. To review: NBA rules dictate that one team must defeat another team four times in seven games in order to eliminate said team and advance to the next round. Four losses, seven games. Miami is 35-1 in the last 36 games featuring the world’s best player. The math … it is not good.

A healthy Thunder team represented the best chance at a competitive series against a fully healthy Heat team, or a Heat team as close to fully healthy as a team can be after playing 82 games and the playoffs. The Thunder aren’t as refined as Miami, or as refined as the NBA punditry might like them to be, and Westbrook more than anyone else represents that lack of refinement. He takes three or four bad shots in each game — midrange jumpers off the dribble, or crazy flying layups taken at full running speed in crowded spaces. The jumpers usually come with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, plenty of time to work for something better. The layups come after Westbrook has accelerated off the dribble, looking as if he is going downhill (especially when he goes left and lowers his lead shoulder), with available passing lanes an overexcited Westbrook ignores.

His positioning on defense can be surprisingly shaky for a guy who entered the draft considered a potential stopper. He’s jumpy, prone to little lunges that get him out of position against the pick-and-roll. He watches the ball sometimes when he’s stationed away from it. His rotations are imperfect. He’s hyperactive when steadiness would do.

But he’d make up for a lot of those mistakes on defense with his spectacular athleticism and ceaseless effort on plays like this:

In this sense, he’s very much like Serge Ibaka, who can be late on a help rotation or out of position on pick-and-roll, and then come flying back into your television picture to slam some poor sap’s layup off the backboard. The Heat are precise, unselfish, and beautiful — a dream for both casual fans and X’s-and-O’s diehards. The Thunder lack Miami’s grace, but through effort, brute force, and just a dash of creativity, they arrive at almost the same results; no team had a better per-game scoring margin this season than Oklahoma City.

The Thunder weren’t a sure bet to get out of the Western Conference, even after injuries had sliced away at the Nuggets threat looming in the conference finals. But they were the favorites in their conference, and they are the only team in Miami’s stratosphere in terms of wing athleticism and raw talent.

The NBA playoffs, at this sad moment, feel like a coronation. And that is bad.

This is also an unkind reminder that luck plays a role every single year in determining the NBA champion. In the last half-decade alone, injuries, both serious and of the minor nick variety, have affected Bryant, Rose, Gallinari, Lee, Westbrook, Kenneth Faried, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett, Bynum, Kendrick Perkins, Amar’e Stoudemire, several other Knicks, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, Jameer Nelson, Manu Ginobili, Chris Paul, David West, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Darrell Arthur, Yao Ming, Brandon Roy, Caron Butler, Udonis Haslem, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, and on, and on, and on, and on.

It has always been like this, to some degree, dating to Bill Russell’s injury in the 1958 Finals and well before. Willis Reed missed the 1972 Finals. Jerry West was injured seemingly every playoffs, though he played through it, and his teammate Wilt Chamberlain had to leave Game 7 of the 1969 Finals — perhaps the most famous game in league history — with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. John Havlicek, Isiah Thomas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale, Ginobili, Karl Malone (the L.A. version), and so, so, so many other key players either suffered major injuries or played through painful ones during the playoffs. And that’s only the very start of the list of stars, let alone the important role players teams have had to do without at crucial times. Not every injury is equal, obviously, but every one tips the championship odds in some way.

The Heat, right now, look as if they have had wonderful health luck, but Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury last season nearly cost them two series on their way to last year’s Finals. It’s more fun to talk about “clutch” and manliness and coming through under pressure, and all that stuff does matter. But so does luck. Just dumb, stupid, knee-related luck.

It’s unclear how long Westbrook will be out. Recovery time for a meniscus injury depends on so many things — the location of the injury, the severity of the tear, and whether doctors decide to simply remove the damaged portion of the meniscus cartilage or to repair it. Recovery takes longer following a repair, and Westbrook appears to have suffered damage on the lateral side of his knee — the outside of it. As I reported when it came out, a groundbreaking study published last year in the American Journal of Sports and Medicine, authored by two leading surgeons and the Lakers’ trainer, Gary Vitti, found that NBA players were unusually prone to tears on the lateral side — and that damage on that side was more serious, and usually entailed longer recovery times, than damage on the medial side.

The lateral meniscus bears more of a load, and is more important in helping NBA players sustain flexibility and fluid movement, experts have told me. Metta World Peace’s return to action less than two weeks after being diagnosed with a meniscus tear is a happy precedent, but it is also a huge outlier. Other players have taken between six weeks and three months to recover, and even longer. We have no clue right now when Westbrook will be back, and if he could return in the conference finals or Finals.

Two results seem so much more important now than they did a few hours ago: the Clippers’ buzzer-beating win in Game 2 against Memphis, and the Thunder surviving a sloppy and sort of chaotic Game 2 at home against the small-ball, go-go Rockets.

The Clippers-Grizzlies winner has just received a giant dose of good fortune, even if no one with either of those teams would ever have wished for this type of good fortune. The annual role of injuries and health-related luck in the playoffs renders silly any talk of an “asterisk” for the Memphis-L.A. winner, or any team that benefits indirectly from this injury. This is a reality of sports every year. All a team can do is play its very best with its available roster, against whatever slate of opponents it finds itself up against.

Among those who will be tested by this: Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, and Scott Brooks. The test for Brooks might be the most interesting. Durant can still play something like 44 minutes per game, and the Thunder played much more often with Durant alone (i.e., with Westbrook on the bench) than they did in the reverse situation. Four Durant–non-Westbrook lineups logged at least 55 minutes this season, and the Thunder had nearly the exact same scoring margin in these “Durant-only” minutes as they did with both stars on the court, per NBA.com. No Westbrook-only lineup logged more than 44 minutes.

But the huge majority of high-leverage minutes obviously featured both superstars. The Thunder aren’t just missing a key piece now; they’ve become an entirely different team, and they’ll have to adjust on the fly at almost the worst possible moment.

That’s why Brooks will be so interesting to watch now. This has never been a particularly artful NBA offense, and it’s unclear at this stage if Brooks can do anything but run the same stuff, only to run more of the stuff where Durant handles the ball, and to slot Jackson in Westbrook’s place within those sets. We saw some of that in Game 2, when Westbrook got in early foul trouble. The Thunder used several Durant-Jackson pick-and-rolls, their version of perhaps Oklahoma City’s most effective play — the Durant-Westbrook pick-and-roll, a set in which each star can fulfill either function. Jackson is 3-of-6 on 3-pointers in the playoffs, working as a spot-up guy around Durant and Westbrook plays, but he shot only 23 percent from deep for the season. He showed much more promise as a bulldog pick-and-roll handler capable of finishing hard in traffic and (hopefully) finding Durant for spot-up tries.

Jackson is also more than capable of filling Westbrook’s role as a pin-down screener for Durant to pop out and shoot jumpers.

But Durant will clearly take more of the ball-handling duties, and that is worrisome. Defenses already play far off both Sefolosha and Perkins in order to clog the lane and muck up whatever Durant and Westbrook are doing. Toss in Jackson for Westbrook, and space is going to be very hard to come by.

Ibaka has obviously progressed as an all-around offensive threat, including as a post-up player, and we’ll see more of Durant and Kevin Martin together. We might even see lineups in which Durant is the nominal point guard, without either Jackson or Derek Fisher, since playing Durant, Jackson, and Martin together with two big men would take Sefolosha, the team’s best wing defender, off the floor.

The Thunder’s offense is already predictable by NBA standards. It works because the talent is good enough to overcome that predictability, and because Brooks and his staff have slowly added some nuance to things over the last two seasons. Westbrook’s absence removes a chaos engine, both in the half court and in transition, and it could up the predictability factor to a point at which Oklahoma City is more vulnerable than it really should be against a quality opponent.

The Rockets are a quality opponent, but the odds are already stacked dramatically against them, facing an 0-2 deficit. Houston already made some hay in Game 2 by going all-in with its small-ball approach, shifting either Chandler Parsons or Carlos Delfino to power forward and letting the 3-balls fly. In doing so, Houston took the power-forward roulette wheel it has been spinning since the Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson trades and smashed it with a sledgehammer. The Greg Smith–Omer Asik big-man combo had actually done quite well in about 200 minutes since the deadline, but the Rockets have apparently concluded that duplicating Miami’s small-ball success against Oklahoma City represents their best path at a competitive series.

It worked in Game 2, but not in the way the Rockets expected. Oklahoma City’s standard big lineups, with two of the Ibaka-Perkins-Collison trio, actually fared nicely against Houston’s smaller groups; the starting lineup, with the Ibaka-Perkins combo that was so lost against Miami’s small-ball attack in the Finals, was plus-6 in Game 2, per NBA.com. The big-versus-small dynamic created equal confusion on both sides of the ball. Houston tried to hide James Harden on defense against Serge Ibaka, but the Thunder on the other end wanted a whole different set of matchups — centered around Sefolosha guarding Harden. That left every player scrambling to find the right matchup in semi-transition, and that predictably resulted in confusion, incorrect matchups, and miscommunication. That confusion seemed to help both teams in equal measure, which is one reason Houston decided to go zone for much of the fourth quarter.

The Rockets made their hay when Oklahoma City downsized to match them, with Durant shifting to power forward — normally a powerful weapon for the Thunder. Houston killed those lineups, and they must know they cannot count on that happening again, even with Westbrook gone.

But Houston found some troubling holes in Oklahoma City’s defense, and if they can find them again, the Thunder could be in for a game tonight. The Rockets sowed some pick-and-roll confusion down the stretch by having Asik (starting along the baseline in the clip below) set a back screen on Russell Westbrook before heading up top to set a traditional high screen for James Harden:

This set scrambled the Thunder on multiple late possessions. The Thunder also got sloppy on some of their switches; they’re lucky Parsons bonked this open 3-pointer with about 1:30 left, when Durant and Perkins both decided the other would take Parsons on the pick-and-roll:

Westbrook was late on a couple of rotations and jumpy as usual up top, and when Oklahoma reinserted its big lineup late in the game, Ibaka provided the world with a Finals flashback when he totally lost track of Delfino — the small-ball power forward — on the perimeter while strolling aimlessly into the lane:

The Thunder will have to be a little more careful in Game 3, and going forward, and they’ve got the tools to adjust. Westbrook has basically plateaued as an average defender, and Jackson should be able to mimic him on that end without the team missing anything. The problems will come when Fisher plays, but with Durant’s ability to run point, Brooks should continue to minimize Fisher’s minutes.

The Thunder will obviously have to survive some time with Durant on the bench, and against top teams, Brooks has given ownership of that time (at least some of it) to Westbrook. That burden will now fall to Martin, Jackson, and Collison — and especially the Collison-Martin two-man game, based around dribble handoffs. Ibaka may also get more time on second units.

Westbrook is sturdy enough to defend shooting guards, including Harden. During a short stretch of the second quarter in Game 2, while Durant was resting, the Thunder tried Jackson on Harden even though Westbrook was also on the floor. That did not go well. The Rockets posted up Harden on Jackson on two straight possessions, and scored both times — a putback of a Harden miss, and a Lin 3-pointer after the Thunder sent Jackson help on the block. Can the Thunder still avoid these kinds of bad matchups for 48 minutes?

I get that Thunder fans will blame Patrick Beverley, who apparently and accidentally “caused” this injury by bumping Westbrook on the sidelines, swiping for a steal as Westbrook tried to call timeout. Fans are going to be fans. But Beverley wasn’t trying to hurt Westbrook, and if you boo Beverley for this, you’d better hold firm to that stance and boo Thunder players for trying the same trick in the future. Players do this all the time. A Thunder player will do it soon.

By the same token, there will be second-guessing now of both the Harden and Eric Maynor trades. I’m not feeling it. The Harden trade was a financial reality — the dictate of the Thunder’s tax situation and of its ownership. The Thunder could have waited until the offseason and tried a sign-and-trade, worked restricted free agency, or looked at the amnesty of Perkins as a money-saver. But the Perkins amnesty wouldn’t have saved nearly the long-term money as the Harden trade, and the team decided it didn’t want the situation hanging over its head all season.

It’s also worth noting that many in the “Why did they trade Harden now??!” crowd in October also recommended at least waiting until the trade deadline. That would obviously not have helped here.

The Maynor trade is exactly the reason you draft Jackson. Maynor’s going to be a free agent this summer, and he was shooting 31 percent in Oklahoma City while recovering from his own sad knee injury. He was better in Portland, but still shot just 42 percent with a 10.6 Player Efficiency Rating — well below the league average.

In the final analysis, this is a horrible bit of bad luck that very likely wipes a title contender off the map. The Thunder should still beat Houston, and they could still win the Western Conference; Durant is that good, and a solid supporting cast is still here. But they’re underdogs now, and they’ll probably be underdogs in the next round, against whomever they face, if they get there. That’s life in the NBA.

Filed Under: Houston Rockets, James Harden, Kevin Durant, NBA, NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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