Russell Westbrook's injury will test Kevin Durant's leadership
Now the spotlight focuses on Kevin Durant.
The opening week of the NBA playoffs has been underwhelming, but that's about to change. The unfortunate circumstance of Russell Westbrook's knee injury has turned his team's series upside-down as the Thunder head to Houston with a flimsy 2-0 lead. The Thunder are no longer likely Finalists in the absence of Westbrook; they're not even assured of surviving the Rockets and old friend James Harden anymore.
There are going to be questions about how the absence of Westbrook will affect the defending Western Conference champions and the league-wide race for the title overall. Many of those questions can't be answered until the severity of the injury to the lateral meniscus in his right knee is diagnosed by way of the surgery itself. Could it be like one of those less troublesome injuries that enabled Metta World Peace to return to the Lakers in 12 days? Or will Westbrook be out too long to make a difference in these playoffs?
The one thing we know about Westbrook is that he will return as soon as possible. The 24-year-old point guard has never missed a game in five NBA seasons. He is a physical dynamo -- a mini-LeBron James scaled down for the backcourt. If the terms of his injury enable him to come back quickly, then it may yet be possible for OKC to return to the NBA Finals after winning the No. 1 seed in the West with 60 wins this year.
The deadline trade of Eric Maynor to Portland in February will force a larger playoff role for second-year point guard Reggie Jackson, who averaged 5.3 points and 1.7 assists in 14.2 minutes this season. His inexperience should be offset, however, by the late-season return of five-time champion Derek Fisher, who hardly played in the first two games against Houston.
Westbrook spearheaded the Thunder defense and helped create the easy baskets in transition that will be harder to come by now. What that means, bluntly, is greater responsibility dumped upon Durant. He must carry his team now, and he is surely up to the job.
After losing four straight games in the NBA Finals last June and then losing Harden to the Rockets in a stunning trade in October, Durant has responded with focus and determination. He did not enable the Thunder to view themselves as victims and he didn't surrender their hopes of winning the championship, even though their level of talent was undoubtedly weakened by the departure of Harden.
The debate over the Harden trade will reemerge now that Westbrook is gone. Harden's ability as a ball handler and playmaker attacking the newfound vulnerabilities of OKC will lead many to ask whether the Thunder regret dealing him. The truth is that Westbrook's injury doesn't change the circumstances of that trade: Westbrook's salary stays on the books, injured or not, and it was the harsh reality of the new collective bargaining agreement that forced Harden to be moved. They couldn't afford to pay him what he'll be earning next year and beyond in Houston.
This is going to be a revealing fortnight for Durant, because he is not going to enable the injury to Westbrook to become an excuse. Look at it from his point of view: He could play the victim and complain that one of his co-stars has been sidelined while the other has been turned against him as his enemy. But Durant is not going to respond in a negative way. Nothing in his background suggests he'll feel sorry for himself. On the contrary -- we're going to see tremendous performances from him in the games to come.
This has been a disappointing NBA season and it is almost entirely because of injuries. Think of all the major talents who have missed important parts (if not all) of the year -- Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Eric Gordon, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Amar'e Stoudemire, Danilo Gallinari, Chauncey Billups, Andrew Bogut. The only contender that has been trouble-free, essentially, has been Miami. Though they have to be concerned by the knee bone bruises that are now afflicting Dwyane Wade, the Heat have looked like runaway favorites to defend their championship in the absence of healthy opposition.
What we are going to see now is the leadership of Durant put to test. My guess is that he is not going to allow his team to lose. I may be wrong about the final outcome, because the loss of Westbrook may be too much for him to overcome. But I am absolutely sure we are going to see him respond with big inspiring games that will prove he is a champion in waiting. For the next few days the playoffs won't be blasé so long as Durant is fighting for survival.