The season-ending injury to Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has changed virtually the entire landscape of the NBA playoffs, most notably the series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies.
At least that is how TNT analyst Chris Webber on Saturday assessed the injury of Westbrook, a three-time All-Star and one of the league’s premiere point guards.
The Thunder entered the postseason as the top-seeded team in the Western Conference and heavy favorites to make their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Such talks seem to have dwindled since team officials on Friday announced that Westbrook would be out for the remainder of the playoffs after a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee he sustained in Game 2. Westbrook went down in the second quarter of that game when Houston Rockets rookie Patrick Beverley went for a steal and collided into his knee.
The winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series, which resume Tuesday night with Game 5 in the Staples Center at 9:30 CST, will play the winner of the Rockets-Thunder matchup. If Oklahoma City, which took a 3-0 lead in their best-of-7 series opening-round series, eliminates Houston, Webber said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Thunder become underdogs to advance to the Western Conference finals now that Westbrook is done for the season.
“You’ve still got to earn it, whether it’s San Antonio,” Webber said. “I do think that in the back of your mind, you’ve got to think you want to get out of this (Clippers-Grizzlies) series because you can believe you’re the favorite. It’s understandable. I mean, you had one of the best records in the league. And now you lose your point guard, so what you’re going to do?”
While the Thunder, who owned the league’s second-best record behind the Miami Heat, still boast the depth to make a run at the NBA Finals, Webber said it would certainly take some doing, given Oklahoma City is without Westbrook, its second-leading scorer who averaged 23.2 points during the regular season. The league’s sixth-leading scorer, the 24-year-old Westbrook had never missed a game during his five-year professional career, a streak that spanned 439 games before his injury.
“Yeah, it has brought more meaning to every series,” said Webber, who played 15 NBA seasons before retiring in March 2008. “When you lose one of the best point guards in the game, you’re going to have trouble shooting, scoring, facilitating, and doing a lot of things. So I feel bad personally for Westbrook, No. 1. But OKC is definitely going to be affected by it. How? It’s up to them to decide and make that point. When you lose a guy like Westbrook, you can’t be as good.”
In Saturday’s Game 3 at Houston, the Thunder didn’t appear affected by Westbrook’s absence until the third quarter. Behind Kevin
Durant’s game-high 41 points, Oklahoma City led by as many as 26 points in the second quarter, but had to withstand a furious second-half rally by the Rockets before escaping, 104-101, to assume a three games to none lead.
The biggest concern at this point, Webber said, is whether Durant’s offensive prowess can be sustained without Westbrook in the fold.
“They’re going to have to figure out a way to get some scoring possessions,” Webber said. “I mean, (Westbrook averages) over 23 points. So how do you just find that? You can’t just say OKC is left for dead, but they’re nowhere near the explosive team they were when they had Westbrook.”
Clippers veteran guard Chauncey Billups, meanwhile, contends the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies series won’t necessarily have a clear-cut path to the conference finals. As Billups tells it, such talks are premature, given the Clippers and Grizzlies are deadlocked at two games apiece.
“(Westbrook’s injury) really has nothing to do with this series…nothing whatsoever,” Billups said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure if Russell was playing, whatever team gets through this (series) is going to fight just as harder. So that really doesn’t come to play in this series. When we get there, then we’ll talk about it. They’re obviously a different team without him. But we’ve got to worry about Game 5 to be honest with you.”