Russell Westbrook said after his last game that few teams could beat Oklahoma City when the Thunder are playing their best. Now he'll see over the next couple of months how many they can beat without him.
In their first game since the sudden news that Westbrook would be sidelined through the All-Star break, the Thunder go for their 11th win in 12 games Friday night when they visit the Charlotte Bobcats.
Westbrook tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the 2013 playoffs, then underwent arthroscopic surgery in October after experiencing swelling, a procedure that eventually sidelined him for the Thunder's first two games of the regular season.
But he played in 25 of Oklahoma City's next 26 games and hardly looked like he'd lost a step, so it came as a surprise Friday when the team announced he had again undergone arthroscopic surgery on the same knee. General manager Sam Presti said in a statement that he had been playing pain free, but "recently had experienced increased swelling" in his right knee.
Presti says the team consulted with a surgeon in Los Angeles and an MRI determined there was "an area of concern that had not previously existed."
"We know that Russell's work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate," Presti said.
That return won't come before Feb. 15, when the All-Star game takes place. That means Westbrook won't make a fourth straight All-Star appearance and he'll miss at least the Thunder's next 27 games.
Averaging 21.3 points and 7.0 assists, Westbrook had his seventh career triple-double by the middle of the third quarter in a 123-94 win at New York on Christmas. Oklahoma City (23-5) had a nine-game winning streak snapped three days earlier in a 104-98 loss to Toronto.
"I just know that if we play the way we play, team basketball, Thunder basketball, not too many teams that can beat us," said Westbrook, who had 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Reggie Jackson is likely to start in Westbrook's place. He's played well off the bench, averaging 12.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Oklahoma City begins this stretch minus Westbrook a half-game behind Portland for the league's best record.
The Thunder are 8-1 against the East heading into this matchup with the Bobcats (14-15), who have been surging of late with four wins in their last five games.
The competition has not been nearly as challenging for Charlotte as the Thunder will be. The Bobcats have beaten Sacramento, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee, while their lone loss since Dec. 14 surprisingly came against Utah - the worst team in the West.
The Bobcats have lost five straight meetings to fall to 2-7 against the Thunder since the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City prior to the 2008-09 season. Both of their victories in that span have come at home, the most recent a 100-92 win March 17, 2010.
Al Jefferson scored a season-high 26, Kemba Walker nearly had a triple-double and Charlotte overcame an 18-point hole to beat the Bucks 111-110 in overtime Monday night.
Walker had 25 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, and Anthony Tolliver had 12 points on four 3-pointers for the Bobcats, who didn't get to 14 victories last season until March 12 and went 7-59 in the lockout-shortened season prior to that.
"We go into games knowing that we have a chance," Walker said. "We have the players and we have the character. That's the difference."
Charlotte, closing a three-game homestand before embarking on a five-game trip, will look to improve to .500 for the first time since it was 7-7 following a win over Milwaukee on Nov. 23.
To keep pace with the Thunder, third in the league with 106.3 points per game, the Bobcats will have to end their scoring slump against the West. Charlotte has been held below 90 points five times and is 2-6 against the conference this season.