OKC Thunder Will Be Periodically Resting Russell Westbrook Down the Stretch

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts following a three point basket in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is at left. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has dazzled since returning from his third knee surgery since last April, but the team hasn't fully unleashed the 25-year-old yet.

His overstuffed stat sheets mask the kid gloves with which he's been handled. He's averaged 22 points, 7.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 steals in his 10 games back, despite seeing just 26.8 minutes a night.

The three-time All-NBA performer should apparently be cherishing these moments. They'll come even fewer and further between down the stretch.

OKC's remaining schedule is clustered with back-to-back sets. The youthful Thunder plan to approach them the same way an aging contender would—with a maintenance plan in place.

Randy Renner of NBA.com has the details:

The Oklahoma City Thunder's closing schedule is heavy with back-to-back sets, six of them over the last month of the season, and Thunder head coach Scott Brooks on Saturday said once again that point guard Russell Westbrook will not play in both games of "some" of those sets.

"We have a plan in place" as to which games Westbrook will sit , said Brooks, but he wouldn't reveal it Saturday after practice."I'll let you know at the appropriate time," he added.

The Thunder kick off the first of those six sets Sunday with a home game against the Dallas Mavericks preceding a road tilt with the Chicago Bulls. OKC will end the week with back-to-back road visits with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.

"The killer set comes on April 3 and 4, at home against the Spurs followed by a road trip in Houston," NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff noted.

This does not appear to be a reactionary move. The stat sheet certainly paints Westbrook as healthy, and Brooks gave his point guard the same assessment, via Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:

Getting Westbrook healthy was obviously the first part of his recovery. Now that it appears he's crossed that bridge, OKC has advanced to the preservation stage.

"We had a plan in place early on when we brought him back and we wanna stick with that," Brooks said, via Renner. "We just wanna, while we can, get some time where he can rest in between games."

In other words, don't expect the Thunder to go all Indiana Pacers in their pursuit of the No. 1 seed.

While OKC is sitting just a game back of the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Spurs, it's putting long-term insurance ahead of that possible short-term benefit. It's the classic marathon-not-a-sprint approach.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 21, 2013 at AT&T Arena in San Antonio Texas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Really, why would the Thunder handle this any differently?

They still have a two-game edge on the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and a four-game lead on the No. 4 Houston Rockets. It would take a colossal skid for the Thunder to feel any real damage over this last month, and colossal skids don't typically afflict a Kevin Durant-led team.

Besides, the No. 2 seed has treated this franchise just fine in the past. Before making a run to the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder finished the regular season a game back of the conference-leading Spurs.

OKC needs a healthy Westbrook to make the type of playoff noise it's after. While the team has handled his absence well this season, losing him was an insuperable blow last postseason.

If the Thunder feel that holding him out now gives him a better shot at a clean bill of health later, this is a move they have to make.

Westbrook's fantasy owners might not agree, but this feels like a measure all Thunder fans could support.


Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.