A week after the Rockets were disappointed to have star guard Russell Westbrook unavailable for a few tune-up games, he woke up with his right leg “sore,” and there were far greater concerns than whether they will have one good dress rehearsal with their entire rotation intact.
A day after Westbrook returned to the court, he was diagnosed Wednesday with a strained right quadriceps muscle, leaving the Rockets uncertain whether he will be available for the start of the playoffs next week.
“We hope,” coach Mike D’Antoni said of the chances Westbrook could be cleared when the Rockets’ playoff series begins either Monday or Tuesday on the NBA’s campus in Lake Buenva Vista, Fla. “We’ll reevaluate in a couple days. We’ll see how it responds. We’ll just see next week. I don’t know right now.”
Certain to finish as the fourth or fifth seed in the Western Conference after Wednesday’s 108-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Rockets will face Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook’s former team, in the first round.
“We all know how huge, how important Russ is to everything we’re trying to accomplish,” guard James Harden said. “The faster he can get his body right and get back on the court, the better off we’ll be.
“We’ve dealt with adversity before. I missed this last game. D-House (Danuel House Jr.) has missed a few games. Eric (Gordon) is just coming back. Russ is out. But we know how to fight through adversity. We’ll keep pushing forward, keep having each other’s back and keep competing.”
Westbrook returned Tuesday after missing a pair of games with a bruised thigh, showing no signs of the injury and declaring he would be ready for the start of the playoffs.
He was scheduled to sit out Wednesday in the second half of the back-to-back, as he has all season.
“I’ll get it back,” Westbrook said after scoring 20 points in 28 minutes, making eight of 17 shots and getting six assists, but with seven turnovers. “I felt all right.”
His only issue seemed to be with timing after missing nearly a week of games and practices. His participation in Florida was originally delayed by a case of COVID-19, but Westbrook has averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists in four games since the restart.
“During the game and after the game, he was fine,” D’Antoni said. “He woke up the next day kind of sore. They checked that out and (want to) make sure he can respond to treatment. We don’t know 100 percent right now.”
The Rockets hoped to use Friday’s game against the 76ers as a chance to get their full nine-player rotation on the floor for the first time in the restart. Gordon played Wednesday, his first appearance in a seeding game after he sprained his left ankle in the final scrimmage. Harden returned after sitting out the first game of the back-to-back.
But House missed a second consecutive game with a sprained left big toe. Center P.J. Tucker left the game in the third quarter after getting his left hand caught in the uniform of Pacers guard Victor Oladipo.
Tucker did not return, watching the rest of Wednesday’s game with an ice pack on his hand. But the Rockets were confident Tucker, who has missed just nine games in eight seasons since he returned to the NBA in 2012 and none in three seasons with the Rockets, will be able to play Friday.
“P.J., I think he’s OK,” D’Antoni said. “He has a thing he’s been dealing with all year. He just got it hit. He should be fine. It hurts, but he’ll be fine.”
Gordon’s first playing time in one of the seeding games was predictably a mixed bag. He was quick off the dribble and got to the rim regularly, but his outside touch was off as he made just one of nine 3-pointers.
“I’ve still got to get my timing back right, the mechanics of getting into my shot,” Gordon said. “That will come with time. But it was good to get to the basket and do the things I normally do — show explosiveness and all that.”
Yet as soon as the Rockets got one important guard back, they lost a vital guard without a good sense of when they’ll get him back.
“We have a good enough team we should be able to beat a team without someone,” Gordon said. “That’s part of the game. That’s why you have to adjust and still find ways to win.”
Jonathan Feigen has been the Rockets beat writer since 1998 and a basketball nut since before Willis Reed limped out for Game 7. He became a sports writer because the reporter that was supposed to cover the University of Delaware basketball team decided to instead play one more season of college lacrosse and has never looked back.
Feigen, who has won APSE, APME and United States Basketball Writers Association awards from El Campo to Houston, came to Texas in 1981 to cover the Rice Birds, was Sports Editor in Garland before moving to Dallas to cover everything from the final hurrah of the Southwest Conference to SMU after the death penalty.
After joining the Houston Chronicle in 1990, Feigen has covered the demise of the SWC, the rise of the Big 12 and the Rockets at their championship best.
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