There was a familiar tone of defiance in Russell Westbrook's voice as he said it.
"Never," he answered Sunday when asked if he had any doubts he'd be the same after a third surgical procedure in eight months. "Never a doubt."
Westbrook's unwavering confidence isn't shocking. He's Russell Westbrook, the man who fires from 18 feet with 20 seconds on the shot clock and never thinks twice about it. But his inner confidence doesn't ease any of the growing concerns emanating across Oklahoma City.
The Thunder’s superstar point guard, their heart and soul, their emotional leader, has now had the same knee operated on three times since Patrick Beverley crashed into him last April, causing a torn meniscus in his right knee that threatened to sap the explosiveness that allows his game to thrive. Westbrook plays with an uncaged fury, but it works only because he's such a freakish athlete, because his body makes it so.
When Westbrook returned from arthroscopic surgery in November four weeks ahead of schedule, he was pain-free and didn't need long to look like his old self. The Thunder ripped off 20 wins in 22 games, capped by Westbrook's Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.
Then the bad news came: another scope on Westbrook’s knee because of swelling, another multiple-week absence.
The anxiety and fear absent on Christmas as Westbrook carved up the Knicks crept back into focus. "The team will manage the situation" -- that's how Thunder general manager Sam Presti described the situation over and over, yet there's no denying the future is murky again. The cryptic description of the injury -- from a loose stitch the first time to something being called “the area of concern” this time -- makes it impossible not to fret.
During his availability on Sunday, Westbrook was peppered with a lot of specific questions about the procedure. When it was over, he stood up and said, “It’s not really any of y'all's business, anyway.”
That’s just the Thunder to their core. We all exist on a need-to-know basis, and the organization’s tight-lipped approach in some ways leads you to believe it knows what it’s doing. But the reticence also increases the worry. I had a friend and OKC resident recently phrase it to me like this: “Royce, why do the Thunder keep lying to my face?” After all, three procedures in less than a year doesn’t exactly ease concerns. First it was the loose stitch, now it’s persistent swelling. Was the original surgery botched? Is there something wrong with Westbrook’s knee we don’t know about?
The Thunder are as prudent as any team when it comes to the long-term health of their players, so it's not hard to decode the current mindset and give them the benefit of the doubt. A healthy Westbrook in April is of far greater value than his playing through uncomfortable swelling in January. The question is: Will the Thunder have a healthy Westbrook in April?
Westbrook's value on the floor can't be undersold. Before "the player that crashed into him" -- which is what Presti called Beverley in a recent teleconference -- put Westbrook out, some wondered if Westbrook held his team back. They nitpicked box scores, fixating on stats like Durant's shot attempts versus Westbrook's. They wondered if Durant needed a more "pure" point guard alongside him, whatever that means. But when the Thunder struggled without Westbrook in the playoffs, that talk disappeared rather listlessly.
When asked last postseason what he'd learned about his team after playing without Westbrook, Durant had a simple answer.
"That we need him," he said. "That we miss him."
Every team wants to preach a "next man up" mentality, but that's a difficult proposition when the first man is Westbrook. Reggie Jackson has filled the spot admirably, but for a team so driven by Westbrook, that's like asking for Coke and hearing, "Is Pepsi OK?" Besides, the shift has taken the super-sub away from the role in which he'd become so comfortable.
In a certain sense, Durant is the next man -- then the next, and the next -- but the Thunder's philosophy has never been to assign a burden that heavy on a single player. Durant tried to carry that load in the postseason against the Grizzlies and learned from it. He's been spectacular in the seven recent games without his All-Star buddy -- 35.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists. In two of the seven games, Durant has attempted more than 30 shots, something he’d done only four times previously in his career. What so many wanted from Durant, to see him unhinged without a shoot-first point guard supposedly holding him back, we’re seeing.
The Thunder, though, are 4-3 during that time.
Durant’s talent is interplanetary, but he needs help. And if he can get it, the Thunder may be better for it in the long run. Amid cries for additional help last summer, Presti and his staff remained disciplined, sticking to their core principles of building a roster from within and giving an opportunity to talented youth like Jeremy Lamb, Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams. The Thunder, now 27-8 and in second place in the Western Conference, are deeper than they've ever been, and far stronger than the team that limped out of the second round of the postseason in five games to Memphis. Durant is better, and so is his supporting cast.
Still, while there may always be some debate over what Westbrook does on the court, the Thunder are better with him healthy. They miss him.
They never had to for the first five years of his career. Westbrook was the unbreakable man, the player who had never missed a game since high school, the guy who treated ankle sprains and hip contusions like a runny nose.
Now, he’s being associated with the likes of Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Derrick Rose -- the What Could’ve Been All-Stars. But what’s so confusing is that Westbrook's performance on the floor belies the complications off it. One day he’s dropping a triple-double at the Garden. The next he’s on the operating table.
So you have to wonder, are we going to be asking what could have been not just with Westbrook, but with the Thunder too? With Westbrook, they’re a bulldozer that throttles through the league with a historic margin of victory. Without him, they’re a team eliminated in the playoffs by a No. 5 seed and dispatched on Tuesday by the 12-25 Utah Jazz.
Westbrook may be fine. He may return in a few weeks and put all these fears to rest. But even after that, Thunder fans will remain on a knife's edge wondering when that next press release will announce another procedure for their point guard. And the questions will start again.