HOUSTON — The Thunder has talked culture since it rolled into town. The Thunder Way.
Hard work. Nose to the grindstone. Defensive mentality. Blue collars. You know, all those trite phrases that are proven right so long as Kevin Durant is sinking 28-footers and Russell Westbrook is going coast-to-coast in 4.2 seconds.
Probably made eyes roll all over the league. Sure, Sam Presti and Scotty Brooks and Clay Bennett have set up a first-class organization committed to doing things right. But hard to screw up a franchise with a dream cornerstone like Durant, followed by nobody-saw-that-coming draft picks Westbrook and James Harden.
Then came Black Friday and the news that the unbreakable Westbrook was broken. A torn meniscus, suffered in Game 2 of the series against the Rockets, will put Westbrook under a surgeon's knife and possibly out of the NBA playoffs. A franchise that has known little adversity in five Oklahoma City seasons now has trouble by the score.
And that culture goes on trial, starting Saturday night in the Oil Capital. Without Westbrook, can the Thunder, up 2-0 in this series, put away Houston? Without Westbrook, can the Thunder claw past the Grizzlies or the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals? Without Westbrook, does OKC have a prayer against the stately Spurs?
How the heck does anyone know? The Thunder doesn't know life without Westbrook, who never has missed a game. Westbrook played 22 minutes in the first Thunder game ever, back on Oct. 29, 2008, when the starting lineup included the likes of Earl Watson and Johan Petro. And Westbrook has played every game since.
Westbrook is the constant. Moreso than Durant and Nick Collison, the only players left to make the move from Seattle. Moreso than Darnell Mayberry and Matt Pinto. Moreso than Rumble and the Thunder Girls.
Westbrook's fire and fury, his endless energy, his world-class athletic ability that he harnessed into world-class basketball talent, always has been with the Boomers.
Now the Thunder moves on without the player Scotty Brooks called the organization's “pillar,” perhaps for the rest of these playoffs, depending on what doctors find on the surgical table.
“Our team has to continue to build on all the habits that we work on and force everything that we have on the court, every possession,” Brooks said.
“It doesn't matter who we throw on there. That's why we have a team. You don't win in this league with one player. You don't win with 5-6 players. You win with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don't just throw it up because it looks pretty cool on a T-shirt or a billboard.”
There's that culture talk. Which is all well and good. But when the Thunder has hit rough times, Durant or Westbrook or James Harden would take the ball and do something magical, and all would be well.
Now the Thunder star list has been reduced from three in the 2012 playoffs to one in these playoffs. Now, that culture talk better be the truth, or the Thunder is headed for an early exit.
Durant called Westbrook “probably the best point guard in the league” and said the upcoming stretch appears to be Durant's biggest challenge as a pro.
“But I have faith in myself and this team that I can go out there and lead us,” Durant said.
NBA history is rife with teams that have faced similar obstacles. The Lakers lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and rookie Magic Johnson produced an epic game to bring LA the title. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose to a knee injury in the 2012 first round and lost to the lowly 76ers. And there are dozes of tales between those extremes.
This is where rock solid franchises endure. They keep playing defense, they find good shots, they even change their style if necessary, and by all means it's necessary with Westbrook gone. No one like him on this roster or any other.
“Our team as a whole, we've got a resilient group of guys,” said Presti, who as Thunder president and general manager created the culture. “We've got a lot of character in that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they've been together.”
Durant and Collison know about adversity. That 20-62 season in Seattle. The 3-29 start in Oklahoma City. Since then, adversity has been measured in millimeters. Losing Westbrook in the middle of the playoffs is measured by light years.
Which is why while this is a time for Durant and Jackson and Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka to show their mettle, nothing can shine as bright as the Thunder Way.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.