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.”