How Russell Westbrook's injury affects Rockets' chances vs. Thunder in 2020 NBA Playoffs
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How Russell Westbrook’s injury affects Rockets’ chances vs. Thunder in 2020 NBA Playoffs

Russell Westbrook, Rockets, Thunder

The matchups for the 2020 NBA Playoffs are almost totally set, though the race for the final spot in the Western Conference is still being contested. Fans are in store for an interesting matchup between the fourth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and fifth-seeded Houston Rockets, but will Russell Westbrook’s recent diagnosis of a quadriceps injury become a factor?

Westbrook is currently expected to miss the “first few playoff games” due to a strained right quadriceps. The injury, which was first listed as a bruise, occurred earlier this month. The Rockets have kept him sidelined for the most part. He did, however, log 28 minutes in Houston’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, notching 20 points, five rebounds and six assists. He then missed Wednesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.

The Rockets announced that Westbrook underwent an MRI in Orlando for a quadriceps injury on Thursday. The results revealed a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He’ll be held out of Friday’s matchup against the Sixers and re-evaluated before the playoffs. His return will depend on how he responds to treatment.

Interestingly enough, the Rockets are set to take on Westbrook’s former team in the first round of the playoffs. All things considered, his absence will surely have an impact given Westbrook’s superstar status. It means that James Harden, a player who already has a high usage rate, will need to step up even more. Eric Gordon who returned to action on Wednesday after dealing with an ankle ailment, will need to deliver as well. And let’s not forget Austin Rivers. He too will be counted on to step up.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Austin Rivers, Rockets

Westbrook’s arrival last offseason in a trade that sent Chris Paul to Oklahoma City transformed the Rockets into a much faster-paced team. His ability to pressure the relentlessly pressure the rim creates headaches for opposing sides, especially as part of Houston’s micro-ball attack.

The Rockets will miss Westbrook’s production on both ends of the floor, to be sure. And though he’s not posting the triple-double figures that he had in the previous three seasons, the former UCLA standout is still holding an impressive stat line for this campaign.

In his 57 outings this season, Westbrook has racked up averages of 27.2 points on 47.2 percent shooting from the field (25.8 percent from beyond the arc), 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.6 steals in 35.9 minutes per outing. After a sluggish start with his new team, the explosive point guard really found a groove as the season went on.

If the Rockets are looking for a silver lining here, it’s that lineups with Harden but without Westbrook have been dynamite since they went full small ball at the end of January:

Houston will surely slow the pace down and play a bit more deliberately without Westbrook. Harden is excellent at controlling the tempo that way. It’s worth noting that the Rockets’ offense struggled when Westbrook wasn’t on the floor with Harden against the Thunder earlier in the season, though that was before they went full-time small ball.

The Rockets and Thunder currently have the exact same record at 44-27 overall. The two sides faced off three times this season, with Oklahoma City winning twice.

With the dynamic duo of Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City has played surprisingly well this season. Will their solid play translate into the playoffs? Or will Harden and his teammates be able to get the job done without Westbrook — for a while, at least?

The prediction here is that the Rockets will still manage a series win, but that gap is narrowed without Westbrook. Houston has to hope it gets its second MVP back in the lineup soon.