A 4-vs.-5 matchup in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs between the Thunder and Rockets—a series in which point guards Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook would square off just one year after being dealt for one another in one of the glitzier star-for-star trades in recent memory—was just a little too perfect. And so, as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports, “the expectation is that” Westbrook—whom the Rockets announced Wednesday had suffered a strained right quadriceps muscle—“will be out for the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer.” The basketball gods just couldn’t let us have it the way we all drew it up, it seems.
Losing Westbrook on the eve of the postseason deals a major blow to a Rockets team that has gone all in on a hyper-aggressive brand of small ball designed to both give historically singular scoring threat James Harden as much isolation space as possible, and to allow Westbrook to most effectively ram his way to the front of the rim. After a shaky start to his first season in Houston, Westbrook found his footing and caught fire as one of the league’s most destructive offensive forces, averaging 31.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game on 51.1 percent shooting from Christmas Day through the season’s suspension on March 11. His numbers climbed even higher after Rockets GM Daryl Morey dealt Clint Capela at the trade deadline—a redesign that committed Houston to full-time five-out basketball, and one that prompted a schematic inversion that deployed ostensible “centers” P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington as floor spacers and the 6-foot-3 Westbrook as the Rockets’ primary paint presence and most potent interior scorer.
Westbrook hadn’t approached that level of production during the restart, appearing in only four of Houston’s seven games after arriving late due to a positive coronavirus test, and averaging 24.3 points per contest on 43.9 percent shooting. Still, with Mike D’Antoni famously leaning hard on tight rotations, especially in the playoffs, Westbrook’s absence looms large—even if the numbers don’t necessarily suggest that it should.
For the most part, the Rockets fared just fine this season when the 2016-17 MVP wasn’t available—just as long as the 2017-18 MVP was. Houston has outscored opponents by 130 points in just under 1,000 minutes with Westbrook off the court and Harden on it, according to NBA.com’s lineup data, blitzing the competition by a very strong 8.6 points per 100 possessions on the strength of an offense that, somewhat paradoxically, hits an even higher gear without one of the highest-octane drivers in the sport.
That trend has largely held firm even since Houston went all-small all the time. Since January 27—the first game Capela missed with the heel injury that preceded his trade out of Texas—the Rockets are plus-52 in 378 Harden-but-no-Westbrook minutes, with a similarly sparkling plus-8.0-per-100 net rating fueled by an even more ferocious offensive attack. The takeaway, as has so often been the case in Houston over the past eight years: As long as Harden’s on the court, the Rockets’ offense is going to be fine.
At issue, though—once again—is how Harden will hold up in the postseason crucible when he has to assume an even greater offensive burden without Westbrook there to share the load. Harden has finished an obscene 42.1 percent of Houston’s offensive possessions in non-Westbrook minutes this season, miles above even Giannis Antetokounmpo’s league-leading usage rate (36.3); this is precisely what Morey, D’Antoni, and Rockets fans everywhere were hoping to avoid in the playoffs.
Time and again over the years, Harden has seemed to wear down by season’s end. The desire to reduce the shot-creation stress on Harden and keep an all-world creator on the court for 48 minutes was the whole point behind bringing Paul into the fold in 2017, and behind flipping an apparently aging and waning CP3 (whoops!) for Westbrook, a younger, more explosive operator who could help Houston more frequently push the pace and make hay in transition.
That specific bet paid off, as the Rockets started a higher percentage of their possessions in transition, and scored way more points per transition play, with Westbrook on the court this season. The bigger one, though, hasn’t quite: On the whole, Houston has been outscored by 1.4 points-per-100 in Westbrook-but-no-Harden minutes for the full season, by 6.0 points-per-100 since the late-January small-ball shift, and by 10.9 points-per-100 since the resumption of play in Orlando.
The hope was that a refreshed and unleashed Westbrook could turn that around in the playoffs, rising to the moment and making enough plays with the ball to keep defenses from overloading on Harden when he played or pummeling Houston when he sat. Without him available, though, where does D’Antoni turn for a jolt when Harden needs a breather, or doesn’t have his fastball?
An awful lot suddenly depends on Eric Gordon, who hadn’t played at all in the restart before going 5-for-15 from the floor and 1-for-9 from the 3-point line in a harrumphing return against the Pacers on Wednesday, getting back up to full speed fast. And, in the process, rediscovering some of the juice that has been all but absent from his game this season; the 30-year-old is shooting a career-worst 36.9 percent from the floor and just 31.3 percent from deep, while posting an assist rate even lower than his microscopic turnover rate.
If Gordon can’t take the reins as Houston’s no. 2 ballhandling, shot-creating, and shotmaking option, D’Antoni’s going to have to hope that Austin Rivers can do a hell of a lot more of what he did against the Kings last Sunday, or that Danuel House and Ben McLemore can suddenly start showing a lot more shake in their game, or that Tucker and Covington get off the shooting schneid (both below 30 percent from deep in the bubble) in a hurry.
Or, and this is the more likely direction for all of this, that this playoff run is the one in which Harden proves he’s capable of carrying the entire operation on his shoulders for monster minutes without flickering, wavering, or buckling. He’s been absolutely sensational in the bubble, and now he’s going to need to be even more so. If he’s not, whatever Westbrook’s eventual timetable for return, Houston might not last long enough for it to matter.