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Russell Westbrook Out: Next Man Up

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook (strained right quadriceps) is officially out for Tuesday’s Game 1 matchup vs. the Thunder, depriving NBA fans of a fun ‘revenge game’ narrative. It’s unclear how long Westbrook might be out, but beat writer Jonathan Feigen reports that he’ll miss “the first few games ... and possibly longer.” Without Westbrook on the court this season, James Harden leads the team in minutes (885), and he also has a ridiculous usage rate of 44.8% sans Westbrook. According to Basketball-Reference, no player has ever had a season-long usage rate higher than 41.6% – and that was Westbrook himself, in 2016-17.

Harden’s deployment in DFS leagues will be through the roof, creating an opportunity for managers to go contrarian and avoid him. That’s not a recommendation – just a fact. OKC boasts the second-best Defensive Rating in the Orlando bubble, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions. They’re also sixth-slowest in pace. Harden’s performance against them in three games this season has been (relatively) bad – 28.7 points (third-lowest vs. any opponent), on 32.8% shooting including 15.0% from downtown. He’s a combined 6-of-40 from deep in three games vs. his former team this year. OKC has obviously keyed their defense to stop him, and will likely double-down on that approach without Westbrook. Can the MVP candidate still torch them? Of course. But I’ll be playing some DFS lineups that aren’t built around him on Tuesday and Thursday.

Without Westbrook on the court, Eric Gordon‘s usage jumps by over five percentage points, and both Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll get significant bumps in usage and DFS production. Danuel House is expected to play in Game 1 despite his toe injury. Houston is likely to run an eight-man rotation without WB in the mix, which does leave some room for those veteran forwards. I’m far more inclined to play Green, who has scored double-digit points in six straight bubble games even though his perimeter shots aren’t dropping, at a combined 5-of-24 in his previous five games. He’s running a lot of pick-and-roll with Harden, and if those looks (mostly of the ‘wide-open’ variety) start to fall, he could be a DFS value in the 7x-8x range.

Eric Gordon recently dealt with his own injury issue after spraining his left ankle, but he’s ready to go after intensive rehab for over two straight weeks. “I was with [trainers] two times a day for almost three hours each,” Gordon said. “It was a task I needed to do for me to get back on the court and to be sort of comfortable.” He played a total of 43 minutes in two games prior to the end of the seeding games, scoring 13 points twice, and there have been no reports of a setback. Deploy him with confidence.[[ad:athena]]

Pivoting to Philly, Matisse Thybulle could soon be starting for the Sixers. When asked if that was a possibility, coach Brett Brown replied, “We are talking a lot, about doing different things. It is being considered.” He also stated, “With the great wing players the Celtics have in the upcoming series, he’s going to assume a massive role.” And even before that, dating back to mid-July, Brown said that Thybulle’s "[defensive] presence keeps people on their toes ... He’s just been so elite and committed defensively.” When you add up those quotes, and consider the Celtics rolling out Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward at the same time, starting Thybulle makes a lot of sense. My guess is he’d replace Al Horford, though that injures the first unit’s offense – without Ben Simmons, the Sixers are between a rock and a hard place.

Even if he doesn’t start games, Thybulle is on the DFS radar for defensive stats. He has 14 steals and seven blocks in his previous seven games, but there’s obvious downside – he’s a non-factor offensively with no more than 10 points in a game since Jan. 22. Beyond the obvious boost for Embiid, we’re likely to see a lot more Raul Neto with the second unit, while Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris create offense for the first unit. I’m mostly into Embiid, though it’s worth noting that he shot just 39.1% in three matchups vs. Boston this year.

Markelle Fultz is slated to start at PG when the Magic open their postseason vs. Milwaukee on Tuesday. “That’s when we were playing at a high level on offense,” coach Steve Clifford said, referring to the pre-shutdown lineup of Fultz, Evan Fournier, James Ennis, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. “I liked our groups and we were playing at a high level and we’re trying to get back to that.” Fultz was a starter for 60 games this year and was in a groove prior to the shutdown in March, with averages over five games of 15.4 points (55.7% FGs), 6.4 dimes, 2.8 rebounds and 1.0 steals.

To evolve into a next-level point guard in the NBA, though, Fultz is going to need to make 3-pointers and free throws. His shooting woes are well known and he’s at 26.7% from deep this season. The good news is that with his shoulder injury behind him, he’s leapt to 73.0% from the line (compared to 47.6% as a rookie and 56.8% last year). He’s also shooting a solid 46.5% from the field overall this year, mostly due to shot selection – nearly half of his shots are coming within eight feet of the hoop.

Unfortunately, the Magic draw the Bucks as their first-round opponent and Milwaukee is elite at defending the paint – they rank No. 1, giving up just 38.7 points-in-the-paint per game. The next-closest team is Toronto at 41.5, and Atlanta was the worst before the shutdown at 53.6. Eric Bledsoe‘s knee is healthy and Brook Lopez is ready and waiting as a second-level rim defender, so it’s just not a good matchup for Fultz. I’ll be passing him up in my DFS lineups.

Aaron Gordon‘s strained left hamstring may not keep him out of Orlando’s opener, but it’s yet to be determined. He went through all portions of Sunday’s workout, but it was non-contact and Clifford was evasive. “It was great to have him out there. Definitely uplifting for everybody,” Clifford said. The Magic will re-evaluate Gordon on Monday, but there’s optimism. “If he feels good, he’ll be able to practice tomorrow, and if he gets through that then we’re hopeful that he’ll be able to play on Tuesday.” Somebody needs to, and will, produce for this Magic team. Fultz and Gordon will have their moments to shine, but I’m not betting on anyone outside of season-long usage leader Nikola Vucevic. Orlando’s secondary options, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier, need to score 18+ points just to hit 5x value most nights, because they contribute so little in non-scoring categories. There’s not a ton to like about Orlando as they go up against the league’s best defense.

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Here are the rest of Sundays’ notes to round things out:

Patrick Beverley (left calf strain) and Landry Shamet (left foot sprain) are questionable for Game 1 vs. the Mavs on Monday. Montrezl Harrell, a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year, has been away from the Clippers for weeks due to a personal matter. He’s officially ‘questionable’ but it sounds like he’ll suit up. The NBA made him quarantine for seven days when he arrived in the bubble, which coach Doc Rivers said was unexpected. “We were really surprised he had to be in quarantine as long as he’s been in,” Rivers said. “But it is what it is, and the tough part is how much [playing time] he’ll have tomorrow, if any.”

Harrell might match up against Kristaps Porzingis (bruised left heel) for stints if both of them play in Game 1 – KP is listed as probable on the official injury report. The severity of the injury is unclear, but Porzingis was downgraded from questionable to doubtful to out for a game on Thursday. That seems like a pure precaution. He was terrific prior to the DNP and I’m assuming it’s a minor ailment, but a heel bruise can linger so it’s something to watch.

Will Barton (right knee soreness) and Gary Harris (hip) won’t play in Game 1 vs. the Jazz. Even when his veteran teammates return, it’s all but guaranteed that Michael Porter Jr. will start. MPJ’s meteoric rise during bubble play is well known at this point, though, so it’s not as though DFS owners (or salary-makers) are sleeping on him. You’ll have to pay up to play him vs. a solid Jazz defense.

Speaking of the Jazz, Mike Conley will likely miss multiple games after leaving the bubble following the birth of his son. Utah plays on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so it’s safe to assume Conley will miss at least two games. Emmanuel Mudiay should pick up some slack in his absence, with Jordan Clarkson and possibly Miye Oni also taking on bigger roles. Joe Ingles is going to be busy and I’m inclined to play him in most DFS leagues – Donovan Mitchell will be pure chalk.

Rajon Rondo (broken thumb) is expected to clear quarantine on Monday, but coach Frank Vogel is “unsure when Rondo will be in uniform and available to play.” His return should dent Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters.