TORONTO — This is what the Thunder was trying so hard to prevent.
But nobody can control nightmares.
That’s what Oklahoma City, for the second straight season, probably felt it was facing: its worst nightmare.
Russell Westbrook left Friday’s game at Toronto with a knee injury, putting the Thunder’s championship hopes into question more with each hobbled step he took toward the locker room midway through the third quarter.
The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.
Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden underneath his pants.
And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.
“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”
The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.
Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.
“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.
After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.
Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.
Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.
“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”
Oklahoma City probably didn’t have anything left in the tank.
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, without Westbrook for the final 29 minutes and having to mount a comeback despite disqualified wing players Andre Roberson and Caron Butler, who both fouled out, the Thunder left Canada physically, mentally and emotionally spent.
“That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Durant, who departed with the game ball signed by each of his teammates to commemorate the contest.
It served as a feel-good win that capped a 3-0 road trip and, for a time, took the Thunder’s mind off the status of its pivotal point guard.
“I was really proud of the guys for fighting this one out, because that could have been an emotional blow, depending on how guys handled it,” said Nick Collison. “But I thought we handled it well.”
Westbrook’s health, however, remains the most significant development, and until he takes the court again, concern will linger regarding the extent of his injury.
By the time reporters were allowed in the Thunder’s locker room, Westbrook was jovial, smiling, laughing and joking with teammates. He had a routine bag of ice wrapped around his right knee, and when his icing time was up, he stood and dressed with no problem before slipping on a tight black sleeve and a pair of black pants.
“I don’t expect to miss no time,” Westbrook said. “We’ll just see how it goes.”
The promising sight of Westbrook moving about so effortlessly was diminished by the memory of him playing the second half of Game 2 against the Rockets last season after tearing his lateral meniscus in the first half. It wasn’t until further tests revealed a day later that Westbrook would miss the remainder of the postseason, which sent the Thunder spiraling out of the playoffs and Westbrook into a long road of rehab that he still is navigating.
He missed 28 straight games from Dec. 27 through Feb. 13 because of swelling in the knee that wouldn’t subside. He’s been sidelined for 33 total, including three in which the Thunder held him out simply to rest the surgically-repaired knee.
Since returning to the lineup on Feb. 20, Westbrook has been on a minute restriction, as well as being limited to one game on back-to-back sets. He rejoined the lineup Friday after sitting out Thursday at Cleveland for one of those scheduled rests.
But even after a frightening scene that looked all-too familiar to last spring, the Thunder chose to remain positive. There was a feeling after the game that the team, more than anything, was being cautious by not bringing Westbrook back into the game.
“We’re confident,” said Durant. “We just got to believe that everything’s going to be all right.”