Thunder will be a title contender as long as Russell Westbrook's knee holds up

Oklahoma City knows what it’s like to play without its All-Star guard. And even though the Thunder has Kevin Durant playing out of his mind, it would still be tough to win a championship without Westbrook.
by Berry Tramel Published: March 23, 2014


photo - Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (0) drives past Houston's Patrick Beverley (2) during the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets at the  Chesapeake Energy Arena  in Oklahoma City, Okla., Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (0) drives past Houston's Patrick Beverley (2) during the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla., Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

Nobody in our state slept well Friday night. Starting with Scotty Brooks, Sam Presti, Westbrook’s clothier, Rumble, that woman who screams “Russellllllllllllllllllllllll” during his foul shots and most everyone with a cable or satellite dish in every hamlet from Tuskahoma to Tonkawa.

For about 20 hours or so over the weekend, we all wondered if Russell Westbrook’s knee was tore up again. Westbrook limped off the court in Toronto on Friday, and the wind was replaced by “aarghs!” and “gulps” sweeping down the plain.

Of course, now word is that Westbrook is OK and might even play either Monday night (Denver in OKC) or Tuesday night (at Dallas). Whew. That was close.

Thunderland knows the feeling of life without Westbrook. Knows it all too well. And it stinks. When Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in the Houston series last playoffs, the Thunder scraped by the Rockets, then was bullied by the Grizzlies in a five-game series defeat. When Westbrook has sat out periodically this season, the Thunder has mostly struggled, save for a magical 10-game winning streak in January during which OKC was the league’s best team.

Westbrook’s latest scare is reason to ask this question. Is the Thunder better prepared to play without him this season than last season? If Westbrook limps off in some game soon, or in the middle of a playoff series, is the Thunder better-equipped to survive?

Depends on what survival means. Win the NBA championship? No. Not going to happen without Westbrook riding shotgun.

But go deeper in the playoffs? Win a tough West semifinal? At least challenge the Spurs or the Clippers or whoever emerges as the Western Conference elite? Yes.

For several reasons. Starting with, the Boomers have some experience now playing without Westbrook. They had zilch last spring. Zero. Nada. Playing without Westbrook was no less startling than playing without air in the ball or a roof on the coliseum.

The Thunder is quite accustomed to it now. Heck, even Friday night showed that, when the Thunder shook off the sickening feeling that Westbrook might be toast again, went toe-to-toe with the not-bad Raptors and won in double overtime with a rally for the ages.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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