It has been nearly a week since surgery ended Russell Westbrook’s season, and reality is sinking in for his team, which suffered a painful 105-103 loss to Houston in Monday’s Game 4.
After suffering the loss of their star guard and their chance at a first-round sweep, Westbrook’s teammates have hopefully moved through the first four stages of grief. Now, in acceptance, they can acknowledge some of the areas that might actually improve in Russell’s absence. Without further ado, the Thunder’s silver linings:
1. Shooting – While neither Reggie Jackson nor Derek Fisher represents anything near Westbrook’s terrifying off-the-dribble force, they are at least comparable as spot-up shooters. Since Westbrook insists on taking several ill-advised three-point tries per game (3.7 in the regular season, 4.5 in the playoffs), it’s reasonable to expect the Thunder offense to run differently now that those shots are being redistributed to better shooters.
For the record, Fisher is 8-13 from long range in the playoffs, while Jackson is 7-17. Westbrook, pre-injury, was 2-9. Nobody is reasonably arguing that the Thunder are better without him, but they might be able to do some specific things more effectively. Smart floor spacing could take advantage of the greater threat that Jackson and Fisher represent around the arc.
2. Defense – Westbrook’s tendency to ball-watch and gamble on this end leads to avoidable breakdowns. Jackson’s greater discipline shows signs of patching some of the holes that Westbrook’s poor habits sometimes leave. (Fisher is all but useless defensively at this point, though he does try.)
In Game 3, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin, and Aaron Brooks – Houston’s primary ballhandlers outside of James Harden – combined to shoot 6-22, with six assists. In Game 4, Lin sat with his chest injury, but Beverley (5-10, 16 points) and Brooks (3-7, 7 points) were far more effective. Westbrook might have given up similar numbers – and he has, many times, against guards of lesser repute – so this potential silver lining remains unproven.
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This ends the list of possible benefits the Thunder could derive from Westbrook’s injury. The last two games have proven that they are in serious trouble.
OKC has outscored the Rockets by 33 points over the course of the series, but most of those came in the Game 1 blowout. The last three games have come down to the final seconds, when Scott Brooks has continued to display uncreative play-calling and curious lineup choices.
The Thunder only managed to split the games in Houston due to a superhuman effort from Kevin Durant, who has played 88 of a possible 96 minutes since Westbrook went down. He has scored 79 points in those minutes, but needed some of the most difficult shots of the first round to do so. At least half of his 12 made field goals in Game 4 came with two or more defenders draped all over him.
His team is still likely to triumph, probably closing out the series on Wednesday in Chesapeake Energy Arena, but Durant will need more help to carry his team past Memphis or the Clippers in the next round. Oklahoma City’s sky is awfully cloudy.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.