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Westbrook needs surgery; playoff return depends on operation

With Westbrook out, the playoffs lose another star player, though OKC has reason for hope. (USATSI)
With Westbrook out, the playoffs lose another star player, though OKC has reason for hope. (USATSI)

The NBA playoffs already were without Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo, two shining lights of any postseason. The Lakers' injuries continue to mount. David Lee was one-game-and-done, out for the rest of the playoffs because of a torn hip flexor suffered in his very first career postseason game.

Now, this. Now, Russell Westbrook.

The defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder are without their dynamic point guard indefinitely after the team announced on Friday that Westbrook needs surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee.

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According to a person familiar with Westbrook's prognosis, it's possible that he could make it back before the postseason is over. That, of course, depends on the extent of the procedure and Westbrook's healing capabilities -- but also on how long the Thunder are able to extend their season without him.

Either way, the NBA postseason has been turned upside down by a knee injury to an All-Star for the second straight year.

Last spring, it was the Bulls' Rose who tore his ACL in Chicago's playoff opener against the Sixers. Saturday will mark one calendar year since Rose went down, and he still hasn't come back -- though the resilient Bulls are up 2-1 on the Nets without him.

Westbrook's injury is entirely different; could not be more different, actually. Surgery to repair a torn meniscus typically involves weeks of recovery time, not months, and the Lakers' Metta World Peace came back in less than two weeks. It depends on the extent of the damage and the approach of the surgeon.

For regular people like you and me, the best option often is to remove the meniscus entirely. But we are not 24-year-old NBA All-Stars looking to play at least another decade of pro basketball, which would be difficult without the cushioning and support that the meniscus provides. If the tear isn't complete, the meniscus can be repaired in some cases -- as in the case of World Peace, who was back on the court in 12 days.

A person briefed on the details of World Peace's surgery said the surgeon was stunned that the 14-year veteran's knees were "clean as a whistle" after so many years of pounding. So the Thunder can hope and probably fully expect that the 24-year-old Westbrook's knee will be even more pristine.

The Rockets gave the Thunder all they could handle in Game 2 at Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. And with the series shifting to Houston, the Rockets' confidence will be riding high. Plus, any additional minutes that Derek Fisher has to spend with Jeremy Lin or James Harden isolating on him will be unfortunate minutes for the Thunder. The younger, quicker Reggie Jackson -- who has played well in the series while shooting at a 55-percent clip -- will get the bulk of those minutes, but reality dictates that the Thunder will have to rely on Fisher more.

To that extent, a creative and forward-thinking move that Thunder GM Sam Presti made at the trade deadline has come back to bite him. Knowing that the Thunder would not be able to foot the tax bill associated with re-signing backup point guard Eric Maynor when he became a free agent this summer, Presti traded him to the Trail Blazers. He received a $2.4 million trade exception, which would be more valuable to the Thunder in potential offseason trades than, say, a second-round pick. Presti could then use the exception to send a draft pick to another team for a player making $2.4 million or less without having to send out another player.

Certainly, a placeholder for Maynor was preferable to either of the alternatives: 1) losing Maynor for nothing as a free agent, or 2) re-signing him and activating the dreaded luxury-tax "apron," which would strip Presti of his mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. It was sound thinking and good management. Then, on Friday, the injury bug took a huge bite out of that plan.

Now, the Thunder have to find a way to survive and advance without their point guard. Against the Rockets, that's still eminently possible. Against the point guards of the Clippers (Chris Paul) or Grizzlies (Mike Conley) in the next round? Things get more difficult.

In the meantime, bet on Westbrook mustering whatever amusement that he can at such a difficult time to take note of the reaction to his injury. The player whose headstrong ways are routinely blamed when the Thunder lose will now be portrayed as the piece they can't win a championship without.

The Thunder will simply hope they can get far enough to find out how much they really missed him, and how important he is once he comes back.

 
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