Miami takes the East, Oklahoma City takes the West.
That was the consensus from basketball fans going into the NBA playoffs. Not anymore.
On April 24, during Game Two of the first-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, Russell Westbrook was bringing the ball up court to call a timeout. It’s not a play that’s out of the ordinary, but in this case, Patrick Beverley of the Houston Rockets tried for the steal and ran into Westbrook’s knee, resulting in a lateral meniscus tear.
Westbrook is out for the remainder of the NBA season, marking the first time he has missed games in his career — high school, college or pro. Up until the injury, he appeared in an NBA-best 394 straight regular season games and played in all 45 of the Thunder’s playoff appearances.
Westbrook’s absence leaves no clear taker in the Western Conference. Up 3-1 in the series with Houston, OKC will certainly advance to the next round, but without its all-star point guard, there is also doubt as to whether the team will make the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year.
The West is a deep conference with seeds one through six all showing they have potential to go far into the postseason. When OKC defeats Houston, it will play the winner of the four/five series, which is a very close series between the L.A. Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis would be a better matchup for the Thunder because Memphis is a more defensively-oriented team. However, the Clippers, with Blake Griffin and a deep pool of guards, including Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, could give the Thunder troubles on both ends of the floor.
If the Thunder can get by L.A., they’ve probably got the best shot at taking the West, since San Antonio doesn’t have the young athleticism to come close to matching OKC. And the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets both lack the experience and depth that OKC has.
Despite the fact that a team typically has to be peaking and playing its best basketball during the playoffs, the Thunder have the depth to still go all the way.
Filling in for Westbrook is the young Reggie Jackson. He’s only a rookie and has little postseason experience as a result, but he is very athletic. The Thunder like to score, ranking third in the NBA with 105.7 points per game, and Jackson can certainly help the team do that.
He’s a versatile athlete, and, like Westbrook, will push the ball. He certainly isn’t going to average Westbrook’s dynamite stat line of 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game, but Jackson has already stepped up for OKC. He’s averaged 11.8 points per game in the playoffs, over six more than his regular-season average. Without Westbrook, he’s increased that number to 16.0 points per game, proving he could be a solid role player for the Thunder down the stretch.
OKC may be starting a rookie, but it has one of the best veteran point guards coming off the bench in Derek Fisher. Fisher is calm and poised with the ball and his past has definitely proved he can hit any shot no matter the pressure.
Another offensive threat for the Thunder is guard Kevin Martin, who is great moving without the ball but can also knock down the three. He averages 14.0 points per game and shoots an impressive 42.6 percent from behind the arc, spreading the defense and clearing space for all-star Kevin Durant.
Thabo Sefolosha isn’t going to look all that impressive on a box score, but he’s OKC’s defensive stopper and could cause havoc for guards like Stephen Curry or Manu Ginobli. On an offensively-minded team, Sefolosha brings the balance.
Down low, Serge Ibaka is the big force for the Thunder. Extremely athletic, Ibaka has averaged 13.5 points and 3.5 blocks per game in the playoffs. It may be Ibaka that turns out to be the X-factor for OKC as he went off for 17 points in the first victory without Westbrook, but scored just eight in the loss Monday night. The Thunder may have lost a guard, but Ibaka’s production may determine how far the team goes.
Nevertheless, the Oklahoma City Thunder now solely belong to Durant. The player who will finish second in MVP voting averaged an NBA second-best 28.1 points during the regular season. During the playoffs, Durant has only improved those numbers, averaging 33.0 points, 5.8 assists and 8.0 boards per contest as well as 48.8 shooting from the field. Without Westbrook, Durant will be the glaring focus for the other team, but so far he’s responded, dropping nearly 40 points in the two games without Westbrook.
For Durant, it’s time to step up and put the team on his back. That’s what the best players do. If he wants to prove he should’ve been a true candidate for the MVP, this is the time. It’s his team and his chance to shine.
Oklahoma City may be facing adversity, but now it has some extra motivation to make it back to the NBA finals. They’ll be playing with Westbrook in mind. Never doubt a team with something to prove.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of May 1st’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Minchen Shen of the Daily Nexus.