The Thunder lost to the Rockets on Wednesday to move that series to 3-2 with a potentially-tying Game 6 set for Houston. It seems like not too long ago that Oklahoma City was in firm control at 3-0. Because not too long ago Oklahoma City was in firm control at 3-0.
Two things are going on here. First, Houston is good! They were the West's sixth-best team by points margin in the regular season and roughly a top-10 overall team. OKC really got shanked by the machinations of the final day of the regular season; the Rockets were the toughest opponent they could have faced out of Houston, the Lakers and Utah. Evidence of Houston's quality can be found in the fact that even with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder nearly lost Game 2. (The final was 105-102.)
The other thing going on is, yes, Westbrook is out. Houston has won two of the three games since Russ went down, and the Thunder's win was another narrow affair. You'd be excused for comparing the Thunder after Westbrook's injury to the post-Derrick Rose Bulls in the 2012 playoffs. That Chicago team exited in six in the first round. Will OKC follow the same path?
I don't think so, and in fact I think the Thunder can get pretty deep still. It's just going to take some real adjustment time.
For the last few seasons, Westbrook has been at or near the top of the heap in terms of shots created. I delved into the topic during the lockout and surmised that Westbrook created so many shots that he turned Kevin Durant into a de facto big man, despite the fact that KD is a small forward usually stationed on the perimeter. (By "shots created," I mean unassisted own field goal attempts and assisted field goals and free throws for teammates. There is a significant measure of estimation happening in the second half of that equation given that the NBA doesn't track would-be assists on missed field goals or any free throws.)
So, Westbrook has been creating a huge portion of OKC's shots through his own aggression and passing for five seasons now. He'd never missed a game before last week. Every time KD has stepped on the court since October, 2008, Westbrook has been right there with the ball largely in his hands. All those scoring titles? Russ was there, feeding. The epic shooting numbers? Russ was there, feeding. All those wins? Russ was there. That run to the NBA Finals last year? Russ was there.
Now, Russ is not there. It's going to take time to adjust regardless of who or what replaces Westbrook and that which he did. Reggie Jackson is pretty good, but he's not the same as Russ. Kevin Martin can score, Derek Fisher can direct traffic, KD can do more. But the absence of Russ in and of itself is a massive adjustment. OKC, and specifically KD, have never had to figure out how to play without Westbrook. Scott Brooks has never had to coach a game without Westbrook. Now, they do. During a playoff series. Against a pretty good team. With 1-3 more really good teams between them and the title.
In some ways, drawing out a winnable series now is good for the Thunder. KD's the guy who matters most, and he has impossibly young legs. He'll survive a seven-game series. So will Serge Ibaka, Jackson, Martin and Thabo Sefolosha. These losses give the Thunder more time to figure out what to do without Russ.
The only major concern is that they'll get stunned by James Harden, the other guy they are missing. The Rockets don't see themselves as practice dummies for the Thunder, and the Houston fans are going to crank the difficulty level up for the Thunder on Friday.