Russell Westbrook's knee injury wasn't just a major blow to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It shook up nearly every basketball pundit's prediction of a repeat of last year's National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals between the Thunder and the Miami Heat.
With shooting guard James Harden off to Houston and guard Westbrook off to rehab, only Kevin Durant remains as the lone healthy All Star still in uniform for last year's Western Conference champions. Oklahoma leads its opening round series against the Houston Rockets but where do they go from here in the 2013 NBA Playoffs? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate this question.
Riley: They're done. They have to be. The one thing that's concerned me all season about this team was the child-like dependence upon Westbrook and Durant by the surrounding Thunder to score, defend and will them to victory. I always asked myself, “What would this team do if one of them went down?” Unfortunately, I'll have an answer to my question soon but it's one of those rhetorical inquires where I already know the response. Oklahoma City is still a quality team but without Westbrook, you can cancel Christmas for the Western Conference's top seed.
Green: I think this team still has all the components to advance to the Western Finals. Oklahoma still plays solid defense, still has Durant and is still deep enough to pose problems for opponents. Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA and the absence of the ball-dominating Westbrook will only provide more shots to the league's most lethal scorer, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Forward Serge Ibaka and guard Kevin Martin should excel in their new roles as co-stars. Oklahoma City won't just lay down with Westbrook out.
Riley: They don't have to lay down but they will have to move over. Denver, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers have emerged as serious contenders over the past few months. We already know about the San Antonio Spurs and now with Westbrook out, the conference is wide open. It's easy to act like everyone else on the Thunder can just step up in this time of need but considering the major fact that Westbrook has never missed a meaningful game, how would the rest of the team even know how to prepare or play for a situation they've never been in before. You're asking a team to adjust on the fly for a fallen superstar who's never missed a post-season game? Good luck with that.
Green: It isn't like Westbrook is their only star, though. I have the utmost confidence in Durant being able to carry a team on his slender shoulders. We're talking about one of the major faces of the league and an MVP candidate being able to raise his game. That shouldn't be a problem for him. We've seen Kobe Bryant will teams through the playoffs and we've seen LeBron James do it previously before he got to Miami. Durant is right there with those guys so it'd be silly to excuse him before he even has a chance to show what he can do.
Riley: Durant's great, no doubt. But expecting him to just run wild through the Clippers, Spurs, Nuggets or Warriors might be too much for a guy who has never had to be in that position. For as great as Durant is, he's always had talent by his side. Whether it was forward Jeff Green, Harden or Westbrook, Durant's always had a dependable wing man to shift defense's complete focus off of him. Superstars need superstars. We learned that from James and Bryant. Bryant gets a lot of credit for the past two Lakers titles but forward/center Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum formed the best big man duo in the league and whether it was Trevor Ariza or Ron Artest, the Lakers had a legitimate shutdown defender at the small forward position. This is a new situation for Durant, will he be up for the challenge? Who knows?
Green: Will it be a walk in the park? No. But I trust Durant will shine and surprise. Oklahoma is a great team. Sure, they lost a great player but an even greater player remains with a duo of above average supporting specialists who won't let Oklahoma City fall off the map. I'm not predicting they'll win the Finals but I'm not ruling them out of making it there either.
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