Russell Westbrook snagged an air ball by Jose Calderon midway through the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night. He immediately darted the full length of the court in a fast-break opportunity. He had a few viable options for completing the transition score: Derek Fisher sitting open on the perimeter, and Kevin Durant sweeping through the lane on his left.
Westbrook chose another option when no Dallas defender challenged him at the rim. He finished the transition with a tomahawk dunk, putting an exclamation point on the Thunder's eventual 107-93 victory.
Welcome back, Russell Westbrook.
In just his second game since his being knocked out of the Thunder's playoff run last season against the Houston Rockets, Westbrook scored 22 points on 10-of-20 shooting to go along with four assists.
With exception to his troubles with ball-handling, Westbrook looks as if he hasn't missed a beat since his knee injury last postseason which led to two knee surgeries and months of rehab.
The effectiveness of Westbrook's return is extremely apparent for the Thunder. Without him, the Thunder offense was stagnant, inefficient, sloppy and forced.
Now that he is back on the court, more players are getting open looks, much due to the amount of attention Westbrook gets from defenders. His constant attack to the rim keeps opposing defenses on its heels. And even when Westbrook fails to finish his drives in the paint, other Thunder players get more opportunities for rebound putbacks.
The person who may benefit from Westbrook's return most is Kevin Durant. Opposing teams can no longer focus mainly on him with Westbrook on the floor. In Westbrook's absence, teams often double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed Durant when he had the ball and forced other Thunder players to try to score and win games. Teams weren't going to let Durant beat them single-handedly, and for the most part it was a successful blueprint to beating the Thunder.
But as we saw Wednesday night, Westbrook opens up Kevin Durant and the rest of the Thunder offense tremendously. He is the missing puzzle piece, the catalyst, the answer to the Thunder offense.
Welcome back, Russell Westbrook.
Another thing Westbrook brings to the Thunder is intensity. Royce Young on DailyThunder.com noted the significant change of identity to the Thunder since Westbrook's return.
After the first three games, the Thunder looked sloppy, thin and light on talent. The performance against the Suns was a little better, but against the Mavs they looked deep, athletic, fast, talented and powerful. They played with energy, they played with speed, they played with that cutting edge they’ve missed. Russell Westbrook’s impact isn’t just obvious — it’s hit-you-in-the-face-with-a-hot-skillet obvious. Not just in he’s a brilliant basketball player that scores and passes and dunks and defends. But he brings a certain energy that cranks his teammates up. After his third straight bucket to start the game, Westbrook strutted to midcourt as the Mavs called timeout and went into his expletive-laced pump-up-the-crowd routine. They didn’t have that without him.
“Mostly it’s for my teammates, to make sure we keep our energy up,” Westbrook said of his mini-freakout. “Keep us upbeat, keep us going. It helps other guys out when they see me hyped and they just follow along and we’re all hyped together.”
Wednesday night was the first time since the first round of last year's playoffs the Thunder looked like they were having fun. And when teams have fun, they click. There were transition dunks, great defensive efforts, steals, rebounds and displays of swagger.
The connection the Thunder players had last night was undoubtedly due to Westbrook being back on the court. If there were any questions concerning whether he would be the same type of player he was before his injury, they have been laid to rest.
The Thunder are a better team now because of the return of their All-Star point guard. The missing puzzle piece is back, and things can start to feel normal for Thunder Nation for the time being.
Welcome back, Oklahoma City Thunder.
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