With Russell Westbrook undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, even if he does return in a matter of weeks, the Thunder are still looking at getting out of the first and likely second rounds without him. Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reports that Westbrook could be back sooner rather than later, but we have no idea at a definitive timetable or what shape he would be in when he got back.
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So the question after we examine the unfortunate injury for the Thunder is ... how does this affect the playoffs?
Is the West suddenly wide open? Let's take a look team by team.
The pre-emptive favorites now that Westbrook is out, the Spurs are in the middle of an early-series domination of the Lakers and look very much like a combination of the offense from the past three years and the defense from the 2007 team. Some of that, a lot of that, is the Lakers' pitiful state following injuries, but it doesn't take away from the fact the Spurs are the No. 2 seed in the West for a reason.
If Westbrook's injury takes OKC out of title contention or opens the door for an upset, it's the Spurs with the most to gain. They can get past the Lakers and get rested, then likely face a Warriors team without David Lee fresh off a long and brusing series or a Nuggets team without Danilo Gallinari fresh off a long and bruising series. The Spurs were going to be favored there regardless. This just opens the door wider.
The big consequences come in the WCF. A Thunder team without Westbrook or with him at 50 percent would be underdogs to a fully-healthy Spurs team, and Westbrook's athleticism gives San Antonio fits. It's hard for a team defense to guard someone that fast. They can live with Durant and outscore the Thunder. Their problem last year was defense. Having only Durant as a primary scorer opens up that window.
And should the Clippers make it past an injured OKC with upset aspirations, they find a San Antonio team that soundly worked them last postseason. The circumstances were different (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were banged up, the Clippers upgraded their bench this offseason), but the Spurs' experience advantage and the Clippers' limited arsenal could give the Spurs the edge. It's still not an easy road, but the Westbrook injury changes the dynamic for San Antonio. They are now the favorites to win the West.
If there were any doubts about the Clippers being real contenders in the Western Conference before the playoffs or even during their first-round grudge match with Memphis, those doubts have probably started to fade away with the news of Westbrook's injury. The Clippers were supposed to outlast the Grizzlies and then move on to meet their demise at the hands of the Thunder in the second round. It was why securing the third seed was so important for them -- to put off that matchup as long as possible as you gain experience and confidence in your playoff abilities.
Now, the Clippers most likely get an opponent in the second round without their second-best player and one of the top players in the league. How does that change things for them? They can focus all of their energy on Kevin Durant defensively, and use Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe to pester Reggie Jackson, instead of Westbrook. This changes things immensely because CP3 no longer has to expend a ton of energy on defense. And with Paul able to focus all of his effort to offense, how do the Thunder deal with his execution in the half court without their pesky, athletic defender squaring him up? The Thunder don't just lose his scoring against the defense; they lose the effort that the Clippers' best player has to expend to try to match or surpass his production. For the Clippers, that means they get to relax a bit while refocusing their schemes against the Thunder. Paul gets to take possessions off on defense and rest up for the final push while still orchestrating. That's not ideal for the Thunder in this matchup.
The Grizzlies are down 2-1 to the Clippers and don't look like the better team. They have to make a lot of adjustments just to get through this series. But if they were to, they'd find a Thunder team that they gave a serious run to in 2011, only this time without Westbrook and James Harden, two players who did major damage to them over the course of the seven-game series. Let's be clear: the Grizzlies are not afraid of the Thunder. They like how they match up with Westbrook. Without him, they would feel like they had a legitimate shot.
The Grizzlies are unlikely to make it out of the first round, but the Clippers series went seven games last year. If they do make it out, the Grizzlies will start to feel like things are breaking their way. A Memphis team that believes is very dangerous, especially against a Westbrook-less Thunder squad and a Spurs team that they know they can beat. This is an opportunity for Memphis if they can get past their nemesis Clippers.
If the Warriors can advance past the Nuggets and Spurs to make the Western Conference finals, how would they fair against an ailing Thunder team (assuming they make it, of course)? At this point in the playoffs, the Thunder would have shown the resolve and made the adjustments to survive life without Westbrook (if he can't get back in time). But would they have the personnel to stop Stephen Curry from marching his team to a surprise Finals visit?
A Thunder-Warriors showdown would ask Durant to fight through screens to handle Klay Thompson and Thabo Sefolosha to clamp down on Curry. Thabo is one of the better wing defenders in the league, and he doesn't struggle with fighting through screens. And with the versatility of Serge Ibaka being able to pop out on screens, the Thunder would, in theory, have the personnel to combat Golden State's perimeter attack. Offensively, they'd need Reggie Jackson to attack Curry's ankles off the dribble and Ibaka to play bigger than Carl Landry inside. But not having Curry or Jack worrying about Westbrook attacking them in the open court bolsters an already very good Warriors transition defense.
The Nuggets have maybe the hardest road in front of them, which is shocking for the 3-seed. Denver faces a Warriors team that now believes it can win and which has severe matchup advantages over the Nuggets. Even if the Nuggets should get back on track and take control of the series, they then run into a San Antonio team that blistered them at full strength earlier in the year. And while the Nuggets did have some success, the Spurs' experience and defense would give them major issues. They'd have to get that far before even we can even talk about how they would match up with a Thunder team without Westbrook or with a limited Westbrook, or against a Clippers or Grizzlies team that also was a tough matchup for them.
The injury doesn't change much for Denver, but it's one less juggernaut in its way, depending on how long Westbrook is out.
Does this open the door for the Rockets to pull off the first-round upset that nobody expected? After Game 1, the Rockets looked incredibly overmatched and doubtful to even sniff a victory in this series. Now with Westbrook out for the remaining games of this series and the Rockets nearly stealing Game 2 in OKC, Harden and company have to feel good about the possibility of shocking the world. The big adjustment to the series was when Kevin McHale decided to go very small and spread the floor. The Thunder can play this style (they love putting Durant at the 4). But without Westbrook there, you lose a big advantage over Patrick Beverley and/or Jeremy Lin. And, all of a sudden playing small against the Rockets plays even more into their hands.
The Rockets now just have to worry more about defending the perimeter rather than defending against penetration to the middle of the floor, which is something they greatly struggle with defending. When the Rockets' perimeter players do close out, they're susceptible to drives to the basket. Without Westbrook out there to essentially destroy with his own dribble-drive offense, the defense will have an easier time of defending on a string. And you turn this into a one-on-one scoring contest between Durant and Harden, while hoping the role players match up with the Thunder's role players. Can they pull off that upset? We don't know. But they have a shot now. This is why they acquired Harden, after all -- to match against any single superstar.