Memphis is going to the Western Conference Finals, and Oklahoma City is going home, left to ponder what might have been if Russell Westbrook, one of the 10 best players in the NBA*, hadn’t been injured in the first round against Houston.
Since Westbrook suffered the seemingly innocuous knee injury on the sideline against the Rockets – remember, he finished the game – the Thunder went 3-6. All five games against Memphis were decided by six points or less. It’s criminal the NBA was robbed of Westbrook vs. Tony Allen, which reminds me of how I felt in 1989 when the Lakers played the Pistons in the NBA Finals and a hamstring sidelined Byron Scott for the series, and then Magic got hurt in Game Two and the Lakers never had a chance. Byron Scott never got to matchup against Joe Dumars … Dumars won the MVP.
[Aside: Yes, I know Westbrook is better now than Scott ever was. And the Lakers still had Worthy. But Scott averaged 19.6 ppg that season, and was the team’s best 3-point shooter. Huge loss. I’m sure there are other Westbrook injury comparisons to stars that have radically impacted a series, but the 1989 Finals always hurt.]
This is not to diminish what the Grizzlies have accomplished. They turned a 2-0 deficit against the Clippers into a 4-2 triumph (yes, Blake Griffin’s knee injury hurt the Clippers). They did a good job on Kevin Durant (5-for-21 in Game 5), and Batman looked human without Robin. Next up, they’ll either play the young Warriors, or the old Spurs. And you know what? The Grizzlies will probably win that series and go up against the Heat in the Finals.
It’ll be interesting to see if LeBron defends Z-Bo or Gasol, or if Miami tries to go big, too (Birdman & Bosh, LeBron/Wade/Cole or Chalmers), which would nullify their 3-point shooting advantage. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Point is, Memphis has a very good chance to reach the NBA Finals. And this will be hailed as a triumph for the small market, analytics, winning without a “superstar” and all that. Whether or not you want to add an asterisk for the Thunder series, or want to toss in the word ‘lucky’ is up to you.
But can we hold off on crushing Thunder GM Sam Presti? Yes, less than one year into the James Harden trade, it doesn’t look good. Yes, Kendrick Perkins had a horrific postseason while Jeff Green thrived in Boston. But remember last year, Presti looked like a genius when the Thunder reached the Finals. How do we know Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb don’t look much better in year two with OKC? The overreaction seems extreme. Westbrook got hurt. They weren’t getting to the Finals without him. The end.
* In no order, based on this past season and the last couple years**: LeBron. Durant. Kobe. Dwight Howard. CP3. Rajon Rondo. Russell Westbrook. Tony Parker. James Harden. Stephen Curry. Dwyane Wade.
** The next five, again, no order: Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams.