In last Tuesday’s game, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the middle of the tightly contested game with playoff implications, decided to sit Russell Westbrook for the first 3 minutes of overtime. He had already played 31 minutes in regulation and the Thunder were sticking to their strict minutes restriction diet of only 32 minutes for Westbrook. In that 3 minutes span, the Thunder fell behind by 7 points to the Mavericks and never recovered. Look, I get it. In the grand scheme of things, a loss in game 71 of the regular season when the team basically has either the No. 1 or 2 seed in the Western Conference locked up pales in comparison to losing your 2nd best player for an extended period of time. But the plan the Thunder are using not only confuses me, but also worries me.
The minutes restriction plan is pretty self evident. The Thunder want to restrict Westbrook’s minutes to reduce the wear on his knee during the regular season. As in everything in life, though, the tough question is, “What is the end game?” Due to the Thunder organization’s tight-lipped nature, its hard to know what the Thunder are thinking moving forward. Since returning on February 20th, Westbrook has averaged 26.7 minutes per game in the 13 games he’s played. Now let’s say he continues on this charted track of minutes played for the remaining 11 games of the season (of which he’ll probably only play about 8). When the playoffs arrive, is he realistically going to jump from 28-32 minutes per game to 38-40 minutes per game? Wouldn’t that kind of bump in playing time have the same effect on the knee as his first return did in the beginning of the season?
This is worrisome because it seems that Westbrook, at 25 years of age, is on a similar rest plan as Dwayne Wade, who is 7 years Westbrook’s senior. Is this a cautious move by the Thunder to preserve Westbrook’s career or is there something still going on with Westbrook’s knee? It’s a scenario that leads not just to one elephant in the room, but a herd of them.
Elephant #1 - What happens if a playoff game goes into overtime? Double overtime? Or further? Playoff basketball is coming and the intensity ratchets up. We saw that in the double overtime thriller that was the Raptors game and the overtime loss in the Mavs game. A coach can never take into account overtime when they are thinking about a minutes restriction plan. Scott Brooks can’t play Westbrook 36 minutes and then take him out the final two minutes of a game using the thought process that “the game might go into overtime”. What happens if Game 4 of the 2011 West Semi-Finals repeats itself? If you don’t remember, that was the triple overtime classic the Thunder won in Memphis.
Elephant #2 - Speaking of Wade, what happens if Westbrook’s knee flares up and/or swells? The last 2 times that happened, the Thunder sent Westbrook to the operating room. True, the first time was a loose stitch. And the second time may have a precautionary procedure for loose bodies in the knee. What happens the third time the knee swells, though? Will the Thunder sacrifice Russell’s future for immediate success if a championship is at stake?
Elephant #3 - If Westbrook is forced to sit, how will this affect the team’s rhythm? As we’ve seen in this slew of back to backs, the Thunder are a different team with Westbrook on the floor. That change in rhythm can work in the regular season where you may play a good team one night and a terrible team the next. But in the playoffs, where an opponent has ample time to game plan for most scenarios, that change in rhythm can be a huge hindrance to the Thunder.
There are a ton of questions regarding the Westbrook knee situation. It is uncharted territory, not only for Westbrook and the Thunder, but also for the fans of the team. The organization will always protect itself. If Westbrook reinjures himself or if his knee swells up, I don’t think the Thunder would hesitate in shutting him down and protecting their asset for the future. But it’s the way they are setting it up that worries me. Now, I’m no doctor and I haven’t stayed at a Holiday Inn Express lately, but to have a guy with a recently repaired knee go from playing 28 minutes in the 20 games leading up to the playoff to 38-40 minutes in the playoffs, seems like a recipe for disaster to me. Hopefully, the team increases Westbrook’s work load in these last 11 games so the jump in minutes in the playoffs won’t be a shock to Westbrook’s body (knee).