When the final buzzer sounded in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Oklahoma City Thunder's season drew to a close and the team was left with plenty to ponder.
One of the biggest questions that was sure to be racking the brains of players and fans alike was: how far could the Thunder have gone this year if Russell Westbrook never went down with a torn meniscus?
Coming into this season, the Thunder were favored to win the Western Conference but were expected to face challenges with the Lakers and their new offseason acquisitions. When we all saw how badly that turned out for Los Angeles, Oklahoma City gained favor once more and fulfilled expectations by entering the postseason as the West's top seed.
Then this happened.
Russell Westbrook had never missed a game in his basketball career, even dating back to his high school days. That was, until he was met with the first major injury which would sideline him for the remainder of the Thunder's postseason run.
It was unprecedented for OKC fans, who had never seen a game where Westbrook wasn't suiting up. However, the team and Kevin Durant knew that the show must go on.
Durant did all he could to carry the squad, but his efforts took a toll on him and Oklahoma City was only able to muster a 3-6 record in Westbrook's absence.
It's always tough for a team when they fail to reach their own realistic expectations. For Oklahoma City, another trip to the NBA finals seemed like it was well within reach, but that was with Westbrook.
So what would have happened if Patrick Beverley never decided to go for that unexpected steal? What if Westbrook's meniscus remained intact and the Thunder had him at their disposal?
Well, to put it simply, the Thunder would most definitely still be playing basketball as of this writing.
With a healthy Westbrook, OKC would have had much more dominating performances against a Grizzlies team that really thrived in his absence. Much of the Thunder's problems against the Grizz stemmed from the stellar play of opposing guard Mike Conley.
During the series, Conley averaged 18 points, 6.8 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per contest, all of which exceeded or tied his regular-season averages (14.6 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG).
Conley was able to create his own offense and distribute the ball with relative ease to the intimidating frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. This was due to Westbrook's replacement, Reggie Jackson, lacking the same intensity that Russell brought to both ends of the ball.
Had Westbrook played this series, he would have forced Conley to work hard on defense and offense. The pace of Westbrook's game is tireless and any player defending him will definitely get a feel for how well conditioned they are.
By limiting Conley's effectiveness to score and assist, Westbrook would have been able to force isolations or fastbreaks, two things the Grizzlies aren't particularly strong at.
With that being said, these games certainly would have gone a lot differently. Instead of Memphis being able to knock OKC out in just five games, it would have swayed the exact opposite way with the Thunder closing out the Grizzlies at Oklahoma.
Now with the San Antonio Spurs up next, the Thunder would be faced with a real challenge.
However, for many of the same reasons, Westbrook would again be the difference maker in this hypothetical series.
We saw these teams play last year in the conference finals, but OKC looks a bit different now without James Harden. Still, as much of an impact as he made in that series, it wasn't a void that couldn't be filled by the Westbrook-Durant combo.
As I stated, Westbrook makes the opposing point guards work hard. He's constantly flying around the court, driving to the rim while also looking to cut off passes on defense. Tony Parker of the Spurs is an elite point guard in his own right, but he would have had a heck of a time trying to stop or score on Westbrook.
Parker against Westbrook is just one area where the Thunder match up well against the Spurs. At other positions, there are matchups like Manu Ginobili vs. Thabo Sefolosha/Kevin Martin, Tim Duncan vs. Kendrick Perkins or Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant.
With Westbrook in the lineup, these matchups are able to function correctly. He's able to hinder Parker at times on defense, cutting off a viable option for the Spurs' perimeter scoring, and he's also able to open up the offense with his slashing and get open looks for deadly shooters such as Durant and Martin.
Essentially, Westbrook is a big ball of controlled chaos that the Thunder have learned to harness with team chemistry. Durant and the guys have a good feel for his game and are able to make his out-of-control-looking plays into Top 10 highlights on Sportscenter.
The team as a whole just works so much better with Westbrook than without him. Even if Kevin Durant is fully capable of being a lone superstar, a lot of his game has developed with having Westbrook at his side and it's what's turned both of them into elite All-Stars.
Overall, I would see this Spurs vs. Thunder series going to seven games in favor of Oklahoma City, giving them a second consecutive trip to the finals.
If that was the case, I believe this is where we'd reach the end of the line for OKC's season.
Though Westbrook is a special X-factor, earlier games against the Heat this season show that LeBron and Co. still have them figured out, healthy Westbrook and all.
LeBron James is at the peak of his game and he also has a strong supporting cast. It's nice to think that maybe Oklahoma City learned some lessons from its defeat last year, but even with some adjustments it's tough to see how the Thunder could could beat the Heat four times out of seven.
That's not to say that OKC will never be able to down Miami, but rather that this year's finals wouldn't have been too different than last season's.
We will never know for certain where the Thunder would have ended up this season with Westbrook intact, but we can always wonder.
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