Maybe it’s simple mathematics.
Russell Westbrook averaged averaging 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 5.2 rebounds on a +23.50 Efficiency Rating per game this season. He took nearly 19 shots per game and made over eight of them. He was good for 5-6 more points every contest off the free-throw line. He averaged 1.8 steals per game. And for 439 consecutive contests that the Thunder took part in during the regular season and the playoffs since Westbrook got drafted in 2008, he never missed a game. Not once.
And suddenly, through a swift turn of events early in Game 2 of the Thunder-Rockets first round series, Westbrook suffered an injury. He finished the game in dramatic fashion, but a day later OKC announced that the superstar point guard would be needing surgery on his knee and probably miss the rest of the playoffs.
The Thunder – the best team in the West with Westbrook and perhaps the closest challengers to Miami’s title defense – would have to subtract one of their two most productive players. Subtract the points, the assists, the rebounds, the steals, and everything else.
So maybe it is a numbers game. All simple mathematics.
Or maybe it’s a lot more than that.
What Westbrook brought to the Thunder was a lot more than stat-sheet stuffing numbers. Playing alongside the NBA’s most explosive scorer for the past few years and an annual MVP candidate, Westbrook had become the perfect Yin go with the Yang with Kevin Durant. Durant brings the calm, zen-like approach to the game, quietly meditative like an enlightened Yogi and deadly like someone trained in the arts of Tai-Chi. Westbrook is the complete polar opposite, a hyper-ball of energy who plays basketball with breathtaking speed, athleticism, strength, and recklessness. Durant is the team’s calming presence, the most stable and efficient source of two or three points in a basketball game. Westbrook is the team’s power-boost, who plays with the passion of every game like it’s his last. Both are cold-blooded competitors and it is their opposing energies that keeps the balance to help the Thunder achieve excellence.
So in many ways, Westbrook’s loss cannot be quantified by mere numbers. Without him, the Thunder not only have to replace his scoring and all-round play, but also find new ways to produce passion and energy required for a long, emotional playoff run.
The onus is mostly on Durant of course. The NBA’s second-leading scorer hasn’t had much experience playing without Westbrook, simply because Westbrook hadn’t missed a single game in his career until Game 3 of the series in Houston. Durant has spent the majority of his career allowing Westbrook to have the breathing room to play in his aggressive – and sometimes selfish – style. Left to his own means to dominate the offense as he so wishes, Durant has the ability to put up historic scoring numbers every single night. He started with 41 points and 14 rebounds in a victory over the Rockets in Game 3 and that's surely a sign of things to come. Signs of an era where Durant would have to channel Westbrook’s offensive aggression, too.
The biggest X-factor for the playoffs is now perhaps Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is now the second-best player on the Thunder. The big man from Congo has always been a defensive threat but has drastically improved his offensive game this season, too. During the season, he averaged a career-high 13.2 points per game (up from 9.1). The Thunder need much more from him going forward.
Off the bench, Kevin Martin will need to shake off his struggles and become a consistent outside shooting option for Durant to defer to when defenses begin to close in on him. Westbrook’s immediate replacement will be young PG Reggie Jackson, who has shown signs of potential, but will have to prove that he’s ready for the big lights. The subtraction of one PG also makes an opportunity for veteran Derek Fisher to step in and play meaningful playoff basketball again.
The Thunder are still a formidable lineup, and even without Westbrook, might be good enough to reach the Conference Finals. But from there on, their depth, resolve, and durability will truly be tested if they hope to have championship aspirations again this season.
Let’s return to our numbers game though. It’s around the 5:34 mark in the second quarter of Game 2 in Oklahoma City. The 18,203 fans in attendance at the Chesapeake Arena watched Westbrook collide against Houston’s Patrick Beverly and hurt his knee. He tore his meniscus, but he came back and finished the game, playing 29 more minutes and scoring 20 more points to help hand the Thunder a valuable victory. Running and gunning despite his injury, he showed why there are certain things about his game that are quite simply, irreplaceable.
So maybe it is just mathematics. Or maybe it is a whole lot more than that.