We do not yet know when, exactly, the Rockets will return to the court, but we do knew that the NBA playoffs, after three days off in protest of the killing of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will resume over the weekend.
And we know that Russell Westbrook, who has yet to play in Houston’s opening-round series against the Thunder, will be part of that resumption. Westbrook first suffered a quad contusion in the Rockets’ third game of the NBA return, back on August 4, and came back to play a week later against San Antonio. But he suffered a quadriceps contusion in that game and has not played since.
It was likely, the Rockets have said, that Westbrook would have played in Game 5 on Wednesday, had it been held as scheduled, as reported by The Athletic’s Kelly Iko. Now, he will have a few more days to recover.
Russell Westbrook will play in Game 5 on Saturday, according to multiple sources. Westbrook was ready and would have played in the originally scheduled game on Wednesday, prior to the walkout.
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIkoNBA) August 28, 2020
According to reports, the time off has served Westbrook well. The Rockets held a 5-on-5 scrimmage on Thursday and a source told ESPN that Westbrook was, “explosive as ever.”
Rockets Bench Struggles in Games 3 & 4 Losses
The Rockets certainly could use a boost. After winning the first two games of the series by a combined 28 points, Houston lost Games 3 and 4 and the absence of Westbrook was showing itself. Star guard James Harden has, predictably, carried the offensive load, averaging 32.0 points, but the rest of the lineup has been unpredictable, especially off the bench.
The Rockets got 40 and 32 points, respectively, off the bench in Games 1 and 2, as the combination of Jeff Green, Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore shot 49.1% from the field and 44.7% from the 3-point line. But that dipped to just 40.5% from the field and 34.7% from the arc in Games 3 and 4.
Putting Westbrook into the starting five and moving guard Eric Gordon back to the bench should help alleviate some of the bench’s inconsistencies while bolstering the starters—Gordon, too, is struggling, making only 20.6% of his 3-point tries.
Rockets Have Much Staked on Westbrook’s Return
Speaking on The Rich Eisen Show on Wednesday, before what was supposed to be tipoff of Game 5, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said that, even without Westbrook, the Rockets should have the ability to beat the Thunder. Houston entered as the No. 4 seed and the Thunder were No. 5.
“I mean, I think we have shown, obviously they’re a very good team,” Morey said. “Credit to Coach (Billy) Donovan and their players, they made the adjustments that were needed after those first two games to really battle us and win two close ones. But I think we’re very evenly matched. We can beat them without Russell but obviously if he’s back, that’s a big positive for us.”
Morey has staked a lot on the Rockets’ performance in these playoffs. It is likely that Mike D’Antoni, who has had tension with both Morey and owner Tillman Fertitta, is heading into his final stretch as the team’s coach. But Morey took a gamble by bringing in Westbrook in a trade in the summer of 2019.
Morey said in June on First Things First on Fox Sports that the Rockets have every reason to expect a championship.
“Basketball pressure wise, yeah, it’s a lot,” Morey said. “Two of the greatest players ever on our team, we should win this thing.”
Morey on if he feels pressure for #Rockets to win a title this season: "We've seen real pressure in the world right now and thankfully some material changes are being made. Basketball pressure wise, it's a lot. 2 of the greatest players ever on our team, we should win this thing" pic.twitter.com/mLG7okIcFv
— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) June 16, 2020