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Thunder no longer West favorites
There’s a kind of unpleasant harmony that came with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s announcement Friday that Russell Westbrook has a torn meniscus in his right knee and follow-up announcement Saturday that he is out for the rest of the NBA playoffs.
This has been, in many ways, the season of the Miami Heat versus an injured league. So it feels consistent that in the first round of the playoffs, the thing that will end up most reworking the contours of this postseason is an injury rather than some thrilling game or heroic on-court performance.
On Friday night alone, there were almost as many reminders of the felled and fallen as the healthy. Of the three games, five of the six teams had injured stars: Amar’e Stoudemire for the Knicks, Rajon Rondo for the Celtics, Danilo Gallinari of the Nuggets, David Lee with the Warriors and Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for the Lakers.
In fact, now, the Western Conference team best positioned to make the NBA Finals is the San Antonio Spurs, a group that was hampered most of the season by injuries and only now is healthy. But they also walk daily through a minefield of old age and the fact you need luck — sometimes in the form of just not having bad luck — to win it all.
And the Thunder? With Westbrook now out after his surgery, they surely know their hopes have shrunk from front-runner status to longer shot.
The Thunder are now far from the favorite. They are far from the team they were. Sans both Westbrook and James Harden (traded before the season), they are not even remotely the group that made the Finals last season. They are changed now, a team looking to Kevin Durant to carry the burden of a team depleted of two of the three stars that made them so formidable in the first place.
For the immediate future, they are up 2-0 on the pesky, Harden-led Houston Rockets. But even that series just got a whole lot tougher. They play Game 3 on Saturday knowing that even if (and almost certainly when) they advance past the Rockets, a Clippers team with Chris Paul that has morphed into a much harder matchup awaits them — or else a showdown against a Memphis team with nasty enough defense that the absence of Westbrook could be felt even more than usual.
Then, if they advanced past that round, they’d likely play the Spurs. But even that series now seems much, much further away than it did Thursday. In Vegas, Westbook’s injury moved the odds of an Oklahoma City Thunder title from 4-1 to 7-1.
To be sure, Westbrook had his occasional issues, and if anyone can overcome his absence, it would be Durant. His stunning season — 51.0 percent field-goal shooting, 41.6 percent 3-point shooting and 90.5 percent from the free-throw line — was somewhat dampened by Westbrook’s curious need to take more shots than the most efficient player in basketball not named LeBron James. So Westbrook shot too much, Durant failed to win the scoring title, and we aren’t quite sure just how many points he can score if he wasn’t deferring.
Westbrook’s inability to fully grasp or apply the level to which Durant is the best scorer in basketball is not moot. But it also means, now freed from that shortcoming, Durant may or may not be able to unleash a barrage of greatness capable of keeping his team on track to the Finals.
We’ll have an answer soon.
This is not to say the Thunder are better in any way without Westbrook. They most certainly are not. It is to say that if any player in the game not named LeBron James can brush off the loss of a superstar teammate and force his will on a playoff run, it would be Kevin Durant.
Still, that is guesswork. What we know right now for certain is this: In a season defined too often by injuries, the one to Russell Westbrook is the most likely to affect who it is from the West that gets a shot at trying to stymie the Heat and what feels like their inexorable march toward a repeat.