The Western Conference first-round playoff series between Oklahoma City and Houston took a sharp turn Friday, when the Thunder announced that Russell Westbrook will undergo surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee.
Both teams practiced Friday in advance of Game 3 on Saturday, and the impact of Westbrook's absence on the series was seemingly the only topic of discussion.
"Obviously disappointing news," Thunder GM Sam Presti told reporters. "As he is disappointed, our team is disappointed. We know what kind of competitor he is, he wants to be out there, it's a medical decision. Our team as a whole, we have a resilient group of guys, a lot of character in that locker room, and enjoys playing together and has been through some adversity over the last several years. ... Clearly, our thoughts are with Russell, getting him healthy and back on the floor."
Presti said that a timeline for Westbrook's return won't be known until after the surgery.
"It would be premature for us to look at a return to play timetable before the surgery has actually taken place," he said.
SI.com's Chris Mannix reports that Westbrook could miss anywhere from two weeks to the rest of the postseason, depending on the type of procedure he receives on his knee.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks now faces a new task: crafting a gameplan and rotation that do not include Westbrook, who has never previously missed a game during his five-year NBA career.
"I have a lot of respect for Russell," Brooks said. "He gives everything he has for the team. All of our players feel the same way: We love Russell Westbrook, we love what he's about, we love the determination and the drive that he has had ever since we drafted him. ... He's a fierce competitor. He competes on every possession, those are the guys you want your players to be around and your younger players to look up to. He's been a great role model for our team and our city."
Conventional wisdom says that reserve point guard Reggie Jackson, a 2011 first-round pick, will step into Westbrook's starting role. On Friday, Brooks wasn't yet ready to commit to making that move for Saturday's Game 3 in Houston.
"We have options," he said. "Obviously he's a very viable option. I have a lot of confidence in him and he's been playing great basketball. We don't have to make that decision until tomorrow night but he's going to get a lot of opportunities to develop and improve."
The Thunder are the Western Conference's No. 1 seed and currently lead their series 2-0. Games 3 and 4 are set for Houston, and suddenly a series that looked like it could end in a sweep must now be reevaluated.
"We have to regroup, and quickly, and our guys have," Brooks said. "We had a pretty good practice today. Everybody is going to have to step up."
Thunder forward Kevin Durant told reporters that he feels for Westbrook and said that it was his responsibility to help keep Oklahoma City on track.
"It's unfortunate for a guy who loves to play the game so much, who is dedicated and committed to his team," he said. "He gives his all every second he is on the floor, a lot of people might not like what he brings to our team but inside we love what he does. He's a different player, different person and we love what he brings. ... We're just praying for him. Hopefully he has a full and speedy recovery. ... We've got to stay composed and poised and I think that's where I come in."
Durant said he "hopes" that Westbrook is able to return during the 2013 playoffs, as the Thunder look to avenge a loss to the Heat in the 2012 Finals, but that Westbrook's long-term health is the priority.
"Our first thing is to make sure he gets healthy, gets that knee back right," he said. "The basketball part, we're not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he's healthy and his knee is back right."
Unlike Brooks, Durant dispensed with the cryptic comments regarding Westbrook's replacement, pointing to Jackson as the man of the hour.
"Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment," he said. "He's been working his tail off ever since he got here. He's ready for this and we've just got to rally behind him and give him confidence. He's going to make mistakes just like everybody else but we've got to continue to keep encouraging him."
Meanwhile, the Rockets expressed their sympathies to Westbrook while also making it clear that they didn't believe Patrick Beverley was out of line during the Game 2 play that saw Westbrook injured.
Midway through the second quarter of a 105-102 Game 2 victory over the Rockets on Wednesday night, Westbrook casually brought the ball up the court as the Thunder prepared to take a timeout. Rather than sit back and wait for the dead ball, Rockets guard Patrick Beverley lunged across Westbrook’s body in search of an open court steal. It was a slightly awkward effort that sent Westbrook crashing to the floor after the two guards banged legs. Westbrook got up, hopped on one leg, slammed the scorer’s table, looked over at Houston’s bench in disgust, doubled over in pain and eventually joined Oklahoma City’s huddle after glaring back in Beverley’s direction once again. Westbrook continued to play, though, finishing with 28 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in 37 minutes.
"It's an unfortunate situation of course," Beverley said. "You hate to see the type of player like that go out with an injury like that. The Thunder are still a good team and we have to prepare for a good team. ... A lot of people [try to steal the ball before a timeout] throughout the league. Anyone who knows me, I don't try to go out there and hurt anybody. I play at one speed, that's fast. I crash the offensive rebounds. I was just trying to make a play on the ball before they called a timeout. I don't think [it's dirty]."
The Houston Chronicle reported reaction from James Harden, Westbrook's former teammate on the Thunder, and Rockets forward Chandler Parson.
“Sad, sad story,” Harden said of his former teammate’s injury. “Russell’s one of my friends. To see him out injured when he hasn’t missed a game his whole career, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“A play like that, that always happens,” Harden said. “In the game of basketball, when the opponents think a team is going to call time out, a guy is going to go for the steal. That happened in so many occasions, not just last game. It happened in so many years in the league.”
“That’s obviously terrible when someone like that goes down with an injury like that,” Parsons said. “You never want that on anybody. I was completely shocked because he finished the game."
The Point Forward has collected injury reaction from numerous analysts. SI.com's Ian Thomsen writes that Westbrook's injury will be a test of Durant's leadership. SI.com's Lee Jenkins writes that Durant's ballhandling role will increase in Westbrook's absence.
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