With Russell Westbrook’s Injury, The NBA Playoffs Just Changed Big-Time

Well, the West did. The Heat are still going to win.

Layne Murdoch / Getty Images

Well, this is huge:

That’s right: presumptive West favorites the Oklahoma City Thunder lose their second-best player and All-Star to a meniscus tear. As Young later points out, Metta World Peace once returned from meniscus surgery in 13 days, but usually, it takes 6-8 weeks; in that case, Westbrook would likely miss the remainder of the playoffs.

Here’s the play on which the injury almost definitely happened. Westbrook was dribbling down the court, then stopped to call a timeout. Rockets guard Patrick Beverley lunged for the ball, colliding with Westbrook’s knee.

As soon as the collision happened, Westbrook looked to be in serious pain, but he kept playing.

And in fact, he did this almost immediately afterward, taking the ball from Beverley and going coast-to-coast for a layup with his characteristic speed. He played 37 minutes total in the game.

Now, if Westbrook misses tomorrow’s game — and that looks all but certain, though I don’t believe Oklahoma City has made an official announcement yet — it’ll put the Thunder in an unusual position. It’ll be unusual because the Thunder have never played a game without Russell Westbrook. Literally: not a single one. He’s played in all 394 games in regular-season franchise history and all 45 of their playoff games to date.

More substantially, it means that the West, long assumed to be the Thunder’s to lose, is now not so much wide open as completely formless. It’s impossible to tell how the Thunder will adapt to losing Westbrook, one of the league’s most athletic and dynamic point guards and Kevin Durant’s constant running mate; the assumption has to be that they’ll be far worse, particularly on offense, but they do have the assets to at least fill Westbrook’s absent minutes. Expect Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin to see greatly increased action, and for the onus to be put on Durant to score even more than he already does — or, 24 in Game 1, and 29 in Game 2.

Meanwhile, the Clippers and the Spurs, currently looking to be the conference’s two other top teams, have to be feeling some adrenaline. Although the Clippers lost Game 3 to the Grizzlies in Memphis last night, they looked very strong in their first two wins and lead that series 2-1. If they can pull it off, they’ll run into the newly/possibly shorthanded Thunder in round two. On the other side of the West bracket, he Spurs have dominated the Lakers so far and should emerge from that series in at most five games; although considering how injured L.A.’s backcourt is right now, it’ll be a surprise if they even take one. And if the Nuggets hadn’t lost Danilo Gallinari to an ACL tear at the end of the regular season, they’d be prime candidates to take advantage as well. The way it stands right now, they’re tied 1-1 to the Warriors, meaning that they don’t have the luxury of looking ahead.

Of course, you could argue that it doesn’t matter either way: whichever team comes out of the West still has to play the Heat. And as long as Miami reains in perfect health, they’re the overwhelming favorite — now more so than ever.

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