By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Goodbye Russell, hello Kevin.
Russell Westbrook’s knee injury and the subsequent surgery that has put him out for the rest of the playoffs, sent shockwaves across the state of Oklahoma, as well as the rest of the NBA, late last week.
The injury, which Westbrook at first shook off during game two of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff series with the Houston Rockets last Wednesday night, has ended the all-star guard’s season.
Has it likewise ended the Thunder’s hopes of repeating as NBA Western Conference champs and challenging for a league title?
Westbrook’s loss cost the Thunder a dynamic scorer and playmaker, a fierce competitor and quick-handed defender. Those qualities will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
But Westbrook’s injury, the first of his career, just might unleash another of the league’s true forces of nature — Kevin Durant.
Despite all the “K.D. is not nice,” advertising hype, the Thunder’s superstar forward often is nice, too nice, in fact. He tends to be content to share the basketball, to stand by while Westbrook takes control during crunch time.
Now he doesn’t have that luxury. Saturday night we got just a glimpse of the new, unfettered K.D. as he scored 41 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and still managed to dish out four assists as OKC took a 3-0 series lead over Houston.
Young K.D. has broad shoulders and a strong back, but not strong enough to continue to carry his team throughout the rest of the playoffs. He needs more help from Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin, among others.
But when the game is on the line and the final seconds are ticking away, there is no question who will dictate the Thunder’s end game for the rest of the playoffs — K.D.
K.D. is truly “the man” for the Thunder now, but Michael Jordan was the man in his early years with the Bulls, and Lebron was the man throughout his stay in Cleveland. The man can only take a team so far by himself.
It’s a crying shame Westbrook got hurt, but injuries are a fact of life in sports. There have been a rash of them among NBA teams this year. The Celtics have been playing without Rajon Rondo, the Warriors without David Lee, and the Lakers without Kobe Bryant.
Whether or not they were able to close out the Rockets late Monday night, the Thunder are heavy favorites to advance to the second round. That’s when the sledding will truly become tough for the young and now wounded Thunder.
They have the pieces in place to be able to weather Westbrook’s absence, but all are going to have to take their game up a notch, especially Martin, who is going to have to demonstrate an ability to score consistently.
During the long-ago TV game show, “To Tell the Truth,” three guests would take the stage and try to convince the celebrity panel that they had some unusual occupation, like yak farmer, for instance. Each guest would introduce themselves with the same name and claim to make clothing out of sheep livers, or some such. The celebrities would question the trio, then guess which one was the real thing. When it was time for the impostors to be exposed, the host would say “Will the real Joe Smith (or whatever) please stand up?”
All the questions have been asked and answered. Now it’s time. Will the real Kevin Durant please stand up? If he does, and he gets enough support from his mates, the Thunder may be in for yet another deep playoff run. If not, it could be an early summer for the boys in blue.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.