On April 24, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook went down with a season-ending knee injury. But despite losing its second leading scorer, the Thunder managed to advance past the Houston Rockets in six games in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Now Oklahoma City is locked in a tense series with the Memphis Grizzlies. Daily Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the impact of Westbrook’s injury.
BL: Westbrook has been very important to the Thunder’s recent success. He was injured at the end of last month, he underwent knee surgery back on April 27, but so far the team has managed to be very competitive in the postseason without him. How have they managed to do that?
BT: They’ve got Kevin Durant, and that’s a great place to start. But they’ve also built a really solid team, a really good defensive team, some solid role players. And Durant’s able to elevate his game and make up for some of the offensive void of Westbrook, so I mean they’ve got a great foundation. Absolutely they miss Westbrook. I don’t know if they can survive Memphis without him. I’m virtually certain they can’t win the NBA title without Westbrook. But you’re right; they’ve put up a pretty good fight without Russell Westbrook.
BL: On Thursday, Westbrook held his first press conference since the knee surgery. You were there expecting the same old personality. But as you observed in a recent column, “The guy who never met a chip he couldn’t strap to his shoulder went all Dale Carnegie.” Was that a surprise?
BT: Well I mean Russell is a great player. But just to be honest, he’s sort of surely, doesn’t really like to talk to the media. And it’s not just the media — he just sort of walks around and lives with a chip on his shoulder. Thunder insiders say that’s not who he really is, he’s really a great guy, he’s playing with an edge, he’s playing angry. And he walks in [Thursday], and he wasn’t that way at all. I mean he’s peaceful, he’s smiling, he’s charming. We all said, “who is this guy?” Invasion of the body snatchers. And maybe this really is who he was. He was very, very engaging and accommodating, insightful — all the things he never has been with us in the five years that we’ve been following his career.
BL: Well having endured knee surgery myself, I have to wonder if perhaps it was the medication.
BT: Well, you know, I thought of that, and somebody asked him a question, and he said, “Well the meds were pretty good.” But I assume they’ve worn off. I don’t know. But he definitely showed a different side of himself yesterday.
BL: I had not realized that until this recent injury, Westbrook had never missed a game in the regular season or the playoffs in five seasons in the league. That’s not quite Cal Ripken-esque, but impressive nonetheless.
BT: Well it is and especially the way he plays. He plays with abandon, and he plays with a fearlessness. He’s taken a bunch of nasty falls and, you know, that’s what was so surprising to us the other night when he got hurt against Houston. As soon as he got hurt he bounced over to the scorer’s table and slammed his fist onto the scorer’s table, and then he went out and scored 20 points the rest of the night, and you think, “Well, same old Westbrook.” So that’s what made it such stunning news. He says he can’t remember missing a game anywhere – high school, UCLA certainly not –but he says he can’t remember missing a game, period, in his entire life.
BL: Kevin Durant is the biggest star on the team, as you have mentioned. He’s averaged 28 points in the regular season and 33 in the postseason. This doesn’t suggest that Oklahoma City is better off without Westbrook, does it?
BT: No, not at all. I mean if you’ve watched the first few games of Memphis and the last four games against Houston, this offense really had a void, and you could tell. In fact, I would say that Russell Westbrook’s value and importance to this team has never been more obvious than since he’s been out.