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Rockets-Thunder Game 3 preview: Russell Westbrook’s injury a series changer

Apr 27, 2013, 3:59 PM EDT

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook takes a break on the court against the Houston Rockets in the second half of their Game 2 NBA Playoffs basketball game in Oklahoma City. Reuters

The Rockets are down, but Russell Westbrook is out.

Westbrook tore his meniscus and will require surgery. He’s out for the rest the Thunder’s first-round series and longer, giving Houston a much better chance of winning games in these playoffs.

But winning the series? That’s still a tall order, especially already down 0-2.

The Thunder’s net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) without Westbrook during the regular season was better than Houston’s overall. It was even better than Houston’s after the Rockets’ mid-season trades, which improved the team.

Still, Westbrook’s injury obviously puts the Thunder in difficult and new territory.

The Thunder’s remaining playoff rotation players (at least so far) – Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Martin, Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher – shared the floor without other teammates for just 278 minutes during the regular season.

Oklahoma City could add another player to its rotation rather than just shrink it to eight, but the Thunder are already using both their backup point guards. Fisher and Jackson often share the court, but now, one or both will have to play more without the other. Some of Oklahoma City’s best and most-used lineups without Westbrook include Hasheem Thabeet, but considering the Rockets found Game 2 success with small ball, giving Thabeet more minutes probably doesn’t make much sense.

No matter how the Thunder adjust their rotation, they’ll have to adjust their offense. Houston has focused on Durant and Westbrook, holding Durant to 43 percent shooting and Westbrook to 41. In turn, Oklahoma City’s other players are shooting 16-for-36 (44.4 percent) on 3-pointers in this series. What happens to those open outside looks when the Rockets have to focus on only one star rather than two?

Durant must step up and carry more of the load.

The Thunder move the ball worse with Fisher and/or Jackson rather Westbrook, so Durant’s one-on-one game becomes more important. During the regular season, Durant took only one more shot per 36 minutes with Westbrook out than with Westbrook in. Durant probably can’t allow his usage to remain so low sans Westbrook, and he can’t wait for Jackson and/or Fisher to set him up.

Iso-Durant isn’t a terrible playoff offense. Everybody hates isolation-heavy offenses, because they’re not fun to watch. But because they do such a great job of limiting turnovers, they’re fairly effective, especially in the playoffs, when there are fewer fastbreak opportunities

Westbrook’s injury might suck some of the aesthetic beauty from this series, but it also makes the series more competitive.

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