Russell Westbrook will finally be making his return to the court on Saturday as he recovered enough from his quad injury to be activated for Houston's Game 5 matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook, playing on a minutes restriction, will obviously be a positive presence on the floor for the Rockets as the playmaking burden is no longer entirely on James Harden's shoulders. But Westbrook's presence on the fast break and off turnovers will be the biggest benefit against this Thunder team.
The Rockets, despite being known for their offense, are a very active defense. They've forced an average of 15 turnovers a game against OKC this playoff series, an impressive number in any regard and especially so considering Chris Paul is orchestrating opposite them. They've capitalized off those turnovers, too, averaging 17 points per game off turnovers in the playoffs, which is good for second-best of all the bubble teams behind only the Los Angeles Lakers. But Westbrook is an absolute whirlwind on the break and can often be responsible for four-ten fast-break points by himself on any given night. Even giving the Rockets two extra baskets off turnovers could be the difference in a series that has been pretty much wire-to-wire outside of Game 1.
Even when they don't force a turnover, this Houston team is meant to play fast. They slowed things down with Harden as the centerpiece to ensure he doesn't get too fatigued, but with Westbrook on the court, that's no longer necessary. In the regular season, the Rockets averaged 14 points per game on the fast break, whether that's off a rebound or just sprinting down the court following a made basket while the defense gets set up. In the bubble playoffs, they've only averaged nine in those same circumstances.
Westbrook is a unique talent in this regard, and Houston's drop makes sense with his absence. He's an excellent rebounder who can crash the paint, get a board, and dunk it on the other end in less than six seconds. Even if he isn't out there for his normal dosage of minutes, he can change the game with how effectively he can cut through OKC's defense on the fast break. The Thunder's best lineups are small and they would probably feel pretty good about their chances if the pace picked up, but Westbrook's ability to get to the rim might force them to play Steven Adams more than they'd like.
Then there's the simple fact that the Thunder don't really have an answer for Westbrook in isolation. Lu Dort has done a great job on Harden, but the Thunder don't have two of him. Sure, Andre Roberson is still a great defender, but is tough to have out there in crunch time due to his poor shooting. If the Thunder need a scoring punch, who's going to guard Westbrook? He's too big and fast for guys like Dennis Schroeder or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Danilo Gallinari. With four other players on the perimeter, it's extremely difficult to stop Westbrook from getting to the rim. If they choose to crash the paint when he does get there, Westbrook's vision can't be doubted, and the ball will find the open man. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Houston can toggle between playing fast and playing slow without losing much without Westbrook. With Westbrook, they're dangerous at both levels of pace. Regardless of the minutes restriction, Westbrook makes turnovers and lazy fast-break defense dangerous-- and that, in turn, makes Houston that much more deadly.