Russell Westbrook will undergo surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, the Thunder announced on Friday. The team said it would not set a timetable for his return until after the surgery, which had not been scheduled yet as of Friday afternoon. The All-Star guard has never missed a game during his five-year career.
“Our players' health is our first and foremost concern," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a prepared statement. "The Thunder’s medical team and several specialists we consulted with determined that Russell undergo a procedure to address the issue. We have thoroughly discussed this with Russell. Despite being the competitor and teammate that he is, he respects and understands the decision and is committed to come back even stronger. Certainly Russell is a leader and core player for this team, but we are in the midst of the playoffs and I know other players are determined to step up and contribute. We have a resilient group of players who have always taken pride in playing as a team and that approach will continue."
Westbrook was 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.
Afterward, Westbrook participated in his postgame media duties as usual and embraced a night full of some physical exchanges with Beverley.
“It’s fun,” Westbrook told DailyThunder.com. “During this time of the year, we got one goal and can’t let nobody get in our way. That’s how I feel and that’s how I want my team to respond as well.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks will have two options at point guard in Westbrook's absence: 23-year-old Reggie Jackson and 38-year-old Derek Fisher. Jackson, a second-year guard out of Boston College, averaged 5.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists this season and beat out former backup Eric Maynor, who was dealt to the Blazers at the trade deadline. Fisher, signed as a free agent in February, averaged 4.1 points in 24 appearances down the stretch.
As a point of reference, Lakers forward Metta World Peace recently underwent surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee. He was initially expected to miss six weeks but returned in 12 days.
SI.com's Chris Mannix reports that Westbrooks's availability for the remainder of the playoffs will hinge on the strategy pursued during surgery, according to multiple sports medical experts. There are multiple possibilities, with recovery timelines that range from two-to-four weeks to multiple months. Mannix further reports that a source close to Westbrook and the Thunder “don’t know” how long Westbrook will be out and won’t until after the procedure.
It's unclear how the Thunder will fare without their dynamic guard because his next-level durability has never put them in this position previously. Oklahoma City's on/off numbers suggest that his loss will be felt more on the offensive end than the defensive end. When Westbrook plays, per NBA.com, Oklahoma City's offensive rating is a truly elite 111.8; when he sits, that number drops to 105.8, which is far closer to average. Those ratings are essentially flipped whenever Jackson and Maynor took the court this year. None of the three point guards swung the Thunder's defensive numbers considerably, although increased minutes for the Jackson/Fisher combination would appear to be a meaningful downgrade on that end as well.
The good news for the Thunder is that they, more than just about anyone else in the league, have offense to spare. The Thunder put up a +9.2 margin of victory this year, the second largest in the post-Michael Jordan era, and they have a number of lineup combinations that don't include Westbrook that have enjoyed success. That said, Jackson's playing time with members of OKC's first unit has been limited. Of the five most-used Thunder lineups that included Jackson this season, none involved more than two of the team's starters. An athletic guard capable of getting to the basket, Jackson won't be expected to fill Westbrook's scoring role; rather, Oklahoma City will spread out the touches and shots between Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka in the short term. Westbrook is the team's spark plug, too, and it's not yet known who steps up to fill that gray area role.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City is staring down a possible murderer's row of lead guards during Westbrook's assumed absence. The Thunder and Rockets will pick up Game 3 of their series in Houston on Saturday with Oklahoma City holding a 2-0 series lead. If the Thunder advance, possible matchups with Chris Paul's Clippers, Tony Parker's Spurs and Dwyane Wade's Heat loom.
Westbrook, 24, averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals for the Thunder, who finished with the Western Conference's best record at 60-22. The fifth-year guard is a three-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA second-team selection.Note: this post has been updated.