A Christmas Day injury to his right knee sidelined Westbrook for almost two months. But now, it seems like Russ is finally making his way back to full strength.
Westbrook has undergone three surgeries over the past calendar year, and it all started when he and Patrick Beverley clanked knees in the opening round of last season's playoffs. That injury sent him out for the rest of the postseason, and it's been all re-injuries and setbacks since then for the Thunder point guard.
After missing the beginning of the season, Westbrook returned to play 25 games with the Thunder in which he was typical Westbrook, but an injury to that same right knee sustained at Christmas against the New York Knicks sent him out for another two months.
Russ couldn't catch a break. Until now. Hopefully.
Westbrook returned to the court Feb. 20, and since then, he's been nothing short of spectacular. And the Thunder seem to be taking a slightly different approach with his second comeback. Scott Brooks has eased him back into the lineup; there doesn't seem to be pressure to play Russ heavy minutes.
That's a measured change for the Thunder and a necessary adjustment to try to sustain their second-best player's health. Even though OKC is just 3-4 since Westbrook's return, the Thunder need their starting point guard to make a title run, and low-minute totals for Westbrook now could help accomplish a greater goal later in the year.
Westbrook's return came at such an unfortunate time, coinciding perfectly with the Thunder's only three-game home losing streak of the season. It became too easy for the Westbrook skeptics to push some of the blame onto him. But that wasn't fair.
In fact, Russ was barely playing when he first returned, and that was a calculated move from Brooks.
When Westbrook first took off his suit and threw on his jersey, Brooks was highly cautious about keeping his point guard healthy. Russ hadn't played in almost two months. There wasn't a need to toss him into the deep end, so Brooks slowly integrated him back into the lineup.
24 minutes in game one. 25 minutes in game two. Actually, Westbrook didn't even hit the 30-minute marker until his seventh game, Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns, when he just barely passed that barrier by 28 seconds.
Rusty Russ was the player who first returned. Defensively, he looked a step slow. He struggled to fit himself back into a defense that ranks fifth in the NBA. But over this seven-game stretch, Westbrook has stood out offensively as much as ever.
OK, now it's time to get ready for Westbrook's numbers. Prepare your eyes, because these aren't meant for the usual human brain to process.
In seven games, Russ has averaged 28.7 points, 10.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds, per 36 minutes.
Yep, those are real. Real numbers that Westbrook is posting in a supposed slump or slow return to the lineup. And keep in mind, this isn't a case of volume shooting.
Westbrook is hitting 50 percent of his field goals over this seven-game stretch. He's draining 48 percent of his threes on 4.4 attempts a game. Heck, he's been a 180 shooter, sinking a cool 90 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.
Statistically, Westbrook has been as brilliant as ever. It seems like those couple games when he was slow out of the gate were too long ago to remember.
Now, Westbrook's shot can't miss the net. And these attempts aren't just on pull-ups. They're not just off the dribble. He's hitting his spot-ups and is draining particularly difficult threes.
Thursday night, Russ had what was arguably his best game (and keep in mind that he threw up a triple-double in 20 minutes in his previous contest). Westbrook hung up 36 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in a loss to the Phoenix Suns, and he did all that while playing just 30 minutes.
As dominant as he was in every aspect of the game, the shooting keeps standing out more than anything else. Four more made threes means that Russ is now up to 35 percent from long-range on the season, a would-be career-high.
Even Westbrook's most supportive defenders wouldn't say the Thunder guard has been a knock down, three-point shooter in his career. But lately, he's caught fire. He's hitting jumpers, loads of them, and they're not easy shots.
He's spotting up. He's pulling up. He's doing everything. What more do you want?
Westbrook's defense is generally one of the more underrated aspects of his game. Really, there isn't anyone quite like him on the defensive end of the floor.
That's not to say Westbrook is the best defender in the league. It's not even to say he's the NBA's best defensive point guard or someone deserving of a spot on the All-Defense team. But he is unique.
Russ can't go through an entire game guarding the opposition's best player. The Thunder demand too much of him offensively to exhaust him on both sides of the ball. So, at times, we see Westbrook coast when he defends off the ball.
That's not a criticism as much as it is an observation. Pretty much every great player carries that trait.
In crunch time, though, Westbrook will take over. He'll become a pest on the ball. He'll gamble just a little less off it, and he'll become that much more successful.
At the end of games, he actually does become one of the best defenders in the league.
Since Russ' return, though, he hasn't quite been the same quality of defender. But that's to be understood considering the circumstances.
Three surgeries on one knee in less than a calendar year should make someone tentative. Only some sort of illogical, Kobe Bryant-like, anti-injury confidence could prevent someone with that many operations on one body part from feeling hesitant to stop and cut immediately upon returning.
Given the minute totals he's doling out, it's probably safe to assume Scott Brooks is of that mentality. Actually, he may even be encouraging a safer defensive mindset.
Westbrook hasn't been lazy. "Lazy" is the wrong word. That guy plays as hard as anyone.
But he has been cautious. And maybe a prudent mindset is best for the Thunder's second-best player as the season winds down.
Remember that Westbrook came back from a right-knee injury already this year, and the return was more of a mirage than a reality. Only 25 games later, Russ found himself wearing a suit on the sideline once again.
Late in games, though, we're still seeing Westbrook pounce like he always does. He's throwing his body into people trying to get boards. He's ferocious going after loose balls.
Let's go back to the Phoenix game again, probably his best performance of the season. Westbrook's most aggressive defensive possession of the night came in the final five minutes when he had to guard P.J. Tucker in the post and then fly for a rebound:
Tucker has three inches and 25 pounds on Westbrook, but Russ doesn't care. He's not letting anyone back him down in the post and actually makes Tucker so uncomfortable that the Suns forward awkwardly has to give up the ball.
Then there's the rebound attempt. The unsuccessful, yet skying rebound attempt. Westbrook got smacked.
But again, why would he care? He doesn't. He exudes "Come at me, bro."
And that's crunch time. We always see Russ go hard on 50-50 balls. Late in games, we're really seeing him turn it on, without any regard for the knee. He's making his way back.
The deliberate defense started for the first few times back on the court. And for the first three quarters of games, we may continue to see it sparingly.
Westbrook's aggression is still on full display often—just not quite as often. We're still seeing it occasionally early in games, like with that steal and breakaway dunk on Goran Dragic to start Thursday's match. And as we saw in Phoenix, the crunch-time defense is still the same. That's what matters most.
It's always been easy to look at Westbrook's shot totals and say, "That guy shoots too much." And there's a morsel of truth to that, though it's a statement that should never frame an argument.
Ultimately, Westbrook makes the right decisions in running an offense, and since getting his feet wet in his return, none of that has changed.
One of Westbrook's best attributes is his ability to push pace. And when he's rebounding well, he can just start running.
That's what's happening now. Westbrook is pulling down more than five defensive rebounds per 36 minutes since his February return. He's just grabbing them and taking off.
He's so fast, so explosive, so strong that he can create on the break. But ultimately, it's his decision-making that helps Westbrook turn into one of the NBA's premier transition threats. And in seven games since his return, none of that has changed.
Take a look at what we saw from some of Russ' electrifying performance against the Suns. Here, he pushes the ball on the break and could go straight to the hoop, but he instead finds Kevin Durant for an open layup.
Given Westbrook's reputation, you'd think he would barrel to the rim, draw a likely foul and head to the line for two shots. But this is one of those scenarios in which reputation doesn't fully match up with reality.
Rookie Russell Westbrook probably would've done that. Maybe second- or third-year Westbrook would've, too. But this is a different player.
The same could be said for the way Westbrook is running the Thunder offense in the half court. One of his best attributes has always been passing out of penetration, and it seems like he's in the exact same spot with that skill as he was when he got hurt.
Westbrook drives, and a defense collapses in on him. It has to do it. He's Russell Westbrook.
We know that getting to the rim can open up jumpers on the perimeter. What separates Westbrook's passing on the drive-and-kick from that of most other point guards is his ability to hit shooters from the opposite side of the floor.
He always seems to find open teammates on the perimeter at the perfect time, like in this second-quarter play against Phoenix.
Jeremy Lamb may have missed the shot, but Westbrook did his job and found a shooter wide open in the corner at the exact right moment.
He's creating for others. He's scoring like he hasn't all season. He's being as aggressive as you'd want him to be in crunch time.
In the end, that's really all anyone can ask of Russell Westbrook. He's been as splendidly dominant as the Thunder could have possibly dreamed. And now, even after dropping four of seven with its second-best player and perennial All-Star back in the lineup, Oklahoma City has to be considered the favorite to come out of the Western Conference.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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