LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Houston Rockets’ flamboyant star can no longer run at break-neck speed and compete as if nothing else matters. So with Russell Westbrook sidelined the past four games with a right quadricep injury, he has channeled his energy elsewhere.
“What has Russ been like? You want an honest answer?” Rockets forward Jeff Green asked. “Annoying; really annoying.”
During the Rockets’ win over Oklahoma City on Thursday in Game 2 of their first-round series, Westbrook seemed as flamboyant on the bench as he would have been on the court.
He could not make a fashion statement with his stylish outfits during post-game interviews. So he made a fashion statement on the bench wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, a bright yellow mask and a trucker hat. Westbrook could not bark orders to his teammates on the court. So he did so during timeouts. He could not argue with officials on the court, so he did so from the sideline. Westbrook even talked with Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and his assistants about game strategy.
Become prepared for Westbrook to serve as de-facto assistant coach again in Game 3 on Saturday. Though Westbrook completed his first practice on Friday since aggravating his right quad on Aug. 11, D’Antoni said Westbrook is “probably out.”
“I don’t think we have a choice on whether we get Russell involved or not. If he wants to be involved, he wants to get involved,” guard Austin Rivers said. “That’s a credit to the type of player he is and more so the type of teammate he is. A lot of guys in Russell’s position, if they’re not playing, they wouldn’t be around.”
Despite the Rockets’ playful jokes about Westbrook’s dominant presence, they are appreciative that Westbrook has stayed involved behind the scenes.
“Russell’s personality is a big part of the team, even when he’s hurt,” D’Antoni said. “He does what he has to do to talk to players and get him going and give us support.”
During practices, Westbrook has remained active with treatment, riding a stationary bike and conditioning drills. During film sessions, Westbrook has raised his voice to share what he likes and dislikes on each play. In Game 2 on Thursday, Westbrook cheered his teammates any time they made a highlight-reel play.
“What you see is what you get with Russ. Even though he’s not playing, it feels like he is because his attention to detail and his focus and his demeanor is like he is playing,” Green said. “That’s Russ 24/7. I love it.”
The Rockets would love it more if Westbrook returns soon, obviously. After acquiring him last summer from Oklahoma City for Chris Paul, Westbrook has complemented Rockets All-Star guard James Harden with scoring (27.2 points) and shared ball handling duties (7.0 assists). Because of his defense, rebounding (7.9) and speed, Westbrook has complemented Harden’s one-on-one, slow-paced style with a faster tempo in the open court.
Though the Rockets lost their last two seed-in games following Westbrook’s injury, they have still thrived in the postseason without him, winning Game 1 (123-108) and Game 2 (111-98) against the Thunder. Predictably, Harden has played a large part in those wins, with 37 and 21 points, respectively. So has Green (18.5 points), Eric Gordon (18.0 points, 4.0 assists) and P.J. Tucker (12.5 points). So has the Rockets’ defense, holding the Thunder to under a 45 percent clip in both games. As Rivers said, “I’ve never seen our defense good like this, ever.”
“We always have confidence that we can do this,” D’Antoni said. “It puts a lot of emphasis on the other guys knowing you’re without Russell with the 25-30 points every night and the energy he brings … Your margin for error shrinks. But if everybody is doing what they’re doing, it still definitely can work.”
Beyond winning, the Rockets have become motivated to play without Westbrook partly to ease his burden when he returns. That might happen soon.
“It looks like he can play almost,” Rivers said. “He’s doing full workouts. He’s just not going full speed. But he’s moving around and getting shots up. … I think he’s just getting as much rest as he can.”
And when he’s not? Westbrook remains busy on the sideline cheering, joking or critiquing.