There were many reasons to want to watch last night’s Oklahoma City Thunder-Miami Heat game.
One of the biggest reasons was that Russell Westbrook would be returning to the starting lineup for the Thunder for the first time since Christmas.
Westbrook underwent the third operation in less than a year on his right knee a few days after Christmas. Once again, the setback was said to be minor, there was simply some swelling in the knee and the operation was precautionary.
It still has to have you worry, Westbrook having three surgeries in less than a year. Will he not be the same when he returns? Is this going to be a chronic thing for him the rest of his career?
We got the first glimpse of Russ last night and he definitely looked rusty. He finished with 16 points on 4-of-12 shooting, had two assists, five rebounds, three steals and four turnovers. He wasn’t as sharp handling the ball, he wasn’t in a rhythm basically ever as he seemed to rush a lot of what he was doing. He had a turnover where he dribbled off Serge Ibaka’s foot. He wasn’t making the same pocket passes for wide-open jump shots that he was doing earlier this season. He didn’t make a jump shot. Basically, he wasn’t 100 percent yet and that was to be expected.
The one way in which he did appear 100 percent was physically. He was explosive at times, including a fast break layup in which he looked exactly like the old Russ. He was active defensively, getting three steals and forcing a couple more turnovers. He soared in for a few offensive rebounds, the kind that only one point guard in the league is capable of. He was quick, didn’t seem to be favoring his knee and played with the same fearlessness we’re all used to seeing.
And really, it’s the physical side that we should be focusing on. Of course it’s going to take time for him to get completely comfortable playing at game speed. That was the case when he first returned this season back on Nov. 3.
Westbrook is reportedly going to be on a minutes restriction. Scott Brooks said they will be playing him 26-27 minutes per game. He played 24 last night vs. Miami. The Thunder may also be holding Westbrook out of some back-to-backs. They’ll probably do this for some time regardless of how he looks on the floor just to be safe. Remember that Westbrook showed basically no signs of hurting earlier this season.
There’s been a lot of talk about Westbrook disrupting the Thunder’s chemistry when he returns. This was not the case last night and certainly will not be an issue for the Thunder. Kevin Durant didn’t take many shots to start the game, but that was not the fault of Westbrook, who wasn’t taking up possessions with shots either. It was just a rough start where no one really did anything well for the Thunder.
Westbrook didn’t show it last night, but once he gets his feet under him, he’ll be better at getting Ibaka going than Reggie Jackson was. Durant will still get his. Durant will probably play a lot while Westbrook is on the bench and during those times he’ll have the chance to handle the ball as much as he wants.
The two-man game between Durant and Westbrook did not work too well last night but that was again because it was Russ’ first game back. That chemistry will quickly return and they’ll get back to dominating opponents together in the pick-and-roll and on the pindown play they always run in the fourth quarter.
Last night was not an ideal scenario for Westbrook to return to. Once you get past how horrible the Thunder looked and that they were playing the hottest team in the league who has the hottest player in the league, you can appreciate Westbrook’s return. He looked healthy, just rusty. It’s been so long since he’s been in the lineup. Let’s just be happy that he’s back and we get to watch one of the most exciting players in the league again.