The Oklahoma City Thunder took a hit to their title hopes on Friday when Russell Westbrook was ruled out indefinitely with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee that will require surgery to repair, but Kevin Durant doesn't want his teammates to panic. Westbrook's tear is considered "minimal," but he could still miss weeks of action or even bow out of the playoffs entirely. Durant told reporters at a team practice on Friday that everyone will have to step up, and that he doesn't want Westbrook to rush back from injury too soon (h/t to Royce Young of CBS Sports and Daily Thunder for the audio link).
Durant is on a quest to reach the top of the NBA mountain and shake his run of second-place finishes on the floor, but even in the wake of his new Sports Illustrated cover story he was able to keep things in perspective:
"It's unfortunate for a guy who loves to play the game so much, who's dedicated and committed to his team, who gives his all every second he's on the floor. A lot of people may not like what he brings to our team, but inside we love what he does. He's a different player and a different person, but we love what he brings and it's unfortunate that he can't compete at the highest level basketball, which is the playoffs. You know, we're just praying for him and hopefully he comes back and has a full recovery and has a speedy recovery. We've just got to step up in his absence."
When asked if he thinks Westbrook will return during the playoffs this year, Durant was careful to put the health of his teammate first:
"Well, we hope [he can come back this year]. Our first thing is to make sure that he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. The basketball part, you know, we're not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he's healthy and his knee is right. That's our only concern with it right now, and as players we have to come together as a team and worry about the basketball. All he has to worry about is him getting healthy."
Durant then noted that Westbrook is "an emotional guy" and that "he wants to be on the floor with his team." Reggie Jackson is the next man up for OKC at point guard, and KD expressed his confidence in the young backup's ability to fill in: "Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment, and he's been working his butt off since the moment he got here. So he's ready for this and we have to rally behind him."
When pressed again on Westbrook's return, Durant reiterated his main focus was on long-term health:
"The only thing I worry about is him getting healthy. You know, this basketball part, people put a lot of emphasis on it, but his health is more important to me. Him coming back earlier just to help us out in the playoffs, if it's not a good idea, he shouldn't do it."
The Thunder hold a 2-0 lead over the Rockets in their first-round series. Game 3 is set for Saturday night in Houston.