Russell Westbrook’s torn meniscus changes NBA Playoffs landscape
According to reports, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook suffered a tear of the lateral meniscus in his right leg during the first half of Game 2 in the Thunder’s first-round series with Houston. He will have surgery to repair it in the coming days and is out indefinitely.
If you’re just now receiving this news, thanks for coming out from under your social media rock (I kid, I kid). But for those of you who have already had time to digest this, you probably know by now the potential ramifications of this injury. First and foremost, it’s been an ugly season for significant injuries in the NBA, and the arrival of the playoffs apparently hasn’t saved players from more harm. It’s a huge bummer to watch a talent like Westbrook go down, especially when piled on top of what’s happened to Kobe Bryant, Danilo Gallinari and David Lee in recent weeks. The league is not nearly as great without these guys on the court.
But our job here is to address it from the Spurs’ perspective, and it pretty much goes without saying, this news is massive in terms of the 2012-13 postseason outlook. We must still await word on the length of Westbrook’s recovery time, but this injury is possibly crippling for an OKC team with title aspirations. But the door has suddenly been blown off its hinges for the Spurs.
San Antonio’s path through the postseason has become quite enviable in recent weeks. First, a Kobe-less Lakers team matches up with the silver and black in the first round, and the Spurs seem to be well on their way to an easy series win. If they do advance, they’ll either face a Warriors team without its All-Star in Lee, or a Nuggets team without Gallinari, maybe its most versatile offensive player. Now, on the other side of the Western Conference bracket, Oklahoma City is in a ton of trouble. The Thunder do have a 2-0 advantage over the Rockets with Game 3 approaching, but the series is heading to Houston and Westbrook has basically zero chance to play again in the series, regardless of how successful the impending surgery is. But even if they are able to move into the second round they’ll have to face either the Clippers or Grizzlies, which would be incredibly difficult matchups without Russ. The timing could hardly be worse for Oklahoma City, but it’s a different story for the Spurs.
With a roster steadily getting healthier, San Antonio suddenly has a golden opportunity to take one step closer to another chance at a fifth ring for Tim Duncan.
It’s important to keep things in perspective for the time being, however. I spoke with a practicing orthopedic surgeon and former physician of an NFL team and U.S. Olympic team, and he told me, given the news that has been reported, Westbrook could be back sooner rather than later. He said that if the tear is small enough and minimal repair is needed, a one-to-two week timetable isn’t out of the question. But he also added, it’s impossible to know the severity of the injury at this point prior to surgery.
But at the same time, there’s a chance he misses the rest of the postseason if this is serious enough, and if the Thunder want to preserve the health of their franchise point guard. The meniscus must be repaired, and that does not bode well for Oklahoma City’s chances, even if he isn’t on the shelf for more than a couple of weeks. For a guy with superior athleticism to basically anyone else at his position in the NBA, it’s difficult to imagine, even if he is able to return sooner rather than later, that he’ll be the same guy on the court.
This from Zach Lowe’s piece at Grantland today:
It’s unclear how long Westbrook will be out. Recovery time for a meniscus injury depends on so many things — the location of the injury, the severity of the tear, and whether doctors decide to simply remove the damaged portion of the meniscus cartilage or to repair it. Recovery takes longer following a repair, and Westbrook appears to have suffered damage on the lateral side of his knee — the outside of it. As I reported when it came out, a groundbreaking study published last year in the American Journal of Sports and Medicine, authored by two leading surgeons and the Lakers’ trainer, Gary Vitti, found that NBA players were unusually prone to tears on the lateral side — and that damage on that side was more serious, and usually entailed longer recovery times, than damage on the medial side.
There is no precedent set for what the Thunder will look like without their point guard. Westbrook has never missed a game in his NBA career, after all. Rumor has it he hasn’t even missed a game since junior high. But we can look at it from another perspective. Westbrook has been a pretty solid barometer for success for Oklahoma City this season, because when he does well, the Thunder do well. This might be a pretty damn obvious statement but I think it points to something. In the games OKC lost this season, Westbrook’s shooting numbers have plummeted. Very basically, he shot nearly 46 percent in wins but just 39 percent in losses, and he committed one more turnover per game in their 22 defeats (not diving into advanced stats for this). Some might point out the fact that “bad Russ” can be detrimental to the Thunder, so we can’t go ahead and compare bad Westbrook games with those in which he doesn’t play at all. And that’s fair. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Regardless, the Thunder have (has?) their work cut out for them. Even if they are able to advance, they’re going to struggle against whichever second-round matchup they draw, but I have a feeling we’re about to see some fireworks in Houston.
The Spurs will be watching and doing their best to avoid a similar type of fate so many of their counterparts have suddenly experienced. Because if ever there was a time to get back to the NBA Finals, now is as good as any.