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.
But there are other reasons to believe the Thunder might be better-suited this year. The Ancient Mariner, Derek Fisher, suddenly is playing like he’s 34, not 39. Reggie Jackson is better than he was a year ago, at least as a starting point guard. Jackson has been spotty since returning to his sixth man role, but he was playing lights out as Westbrook’s replacement and he did so again Friday night.
The Thunder is deeper than last season. Hasheem Thabeet was the backup center last season. Now he’s third string, and not because his skills have deteriorated. OKC drafted over Thabeet (Steven Adams).
Suddenly, Caron Butler has boarded ship to take the Kevin Martin role. Butler’s not the scorer Circle K is, but he’s a better all-around ballplayer. Plus Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson all have played a bunch of minutes, even if Butler has swiped playing time from all. That only makes the bench better. Not worse.
And we haven’t even reached the No. 1 reason the Thunder could better withstand a missing Westbrook. Kevin Durant is playing out of his mind. Has all season. With Westbrook or without, but even moreso without. It’s like Durant has added Captain America’s shield to Superman’s cape. Scoring more, shooting better, passing wonderfully.
We saw that Friday night. Westbrook exited with 7:37 left in the third quarter. Durant played the rest of the game. In those 291/2 minutes (the game went double overtime), Durant had 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting, with six rebounds and five assists.
With Durant, all things are possible. Except the NBA title. He’s going to need Westbrook for that.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . 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.