Westbrook missed 36 games this season due to a series of knee injuries. But now, he's finally getting back to 100 percent, just in time for the Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round playoff matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies.
With Westbrook, the most important thing is always health. Everything else follows.
Sure, you can complain about the contested shots or the at-times-out-of-control basketball. You can say you want Russ to defer to Durant, but we're getting nitpicky there. Really, the Thunder's biggest offensive issue isn't that Westbrook "takes shots away" from KD. It's that their attack isn't particularly imaginative at all.
Scott Brooks employs a simple offense. Isolations, pick-and-rolls and that's about it. So when it seems like Westbrook and Durant are merely taking turns, maybe that's not completely on Russ.
Westbrook is still the guy who runs the offense so often. He's essential as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, especially when Serge Ibaka comes over to set screens. Even with Reggie Jackson's noticeable improvement this year, the Thunder backup point guard can't replicate Westbrook's production or ability to create.
Clearly, the Thunder offense is better with Westbrook. Just look at the numbers.
Last season, when a Westbrook-less Thunder team fell in five games to the Grizzlies, the OKC offense became completely unimaginative. From Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
Not having Westbrook was the bigger problem. It allowed Memphis to focus solely on Durant. And the Thunder never did anything to get everybody else going. They just kept force-feeding Durant.
And this isn't just a third-party opinion. Westbrook's Thunder teammates seem to be well aware they need their star point guard, too.
Just look at what Thunder forward Nick Collison recently said of Westbrook, as written in the Washington Post:
It’s huge because he’s a great player, and we rely on him for a lot of what we do. I think it really hurt us last year for how sudden it was for him to be hurt, and we really didn’t have much time to deal with it. I think we feel better about it this year, going in at full strength. He’s one of our best players, one of our leaders, and we’re much better off with him, that’s for sure.
So what do the Thunder need Westbrook to do? Just stay on the darn floor.
Westbrook played only 46 games this year and averaged a career-low 30.7 minutes a night. Now, that wasn't completely his fault, as the Thunder organization placed strict minutes restrictions on him upon his post-All-Star break return.
But that's the calculated move to make when your perennial All-Star is returning from his third knee surgery in less than a year. You don't risk injury, especially when you're a championship contender.
Now, though, there are signs Westbrook is reforming into the old Russ. He's finally starting to play more, racking up at least 33 minutes in four of his final five regular-season games.
In some ways, even if there aren't minutes limitations in the postseason, Brooks has to go out of his way to make sure Westbrook stays healthy.
That could mean letting him take some plays off and allowing Durant or Jackson to take over ball-handling duties a little more often than usual. Brooks could even keep substitute rotations where they are right now and not let Westbrook go over 34 minutes in a regulation game.
Russ hasn't gone over that mark in a single contest since Dec. 22. So will he be used to getting major playing time in a competitive playoff game? It's hard to tell.
Here's the good news for the Thunder: Westbrook hasn't looked unhealthy all season. Maybe that's a product of his helter-skelter playing style. Or maybe he's just such a freak that we can't even tell when he's hurt. He could even be healthy.
Let's remember that injuries are only a part of Westbrook's recent history. Before he collided with Houston's Patrick Beverley in the first round of last year's NBA playoffs, he hadn't missed a game since high school. Not one. He played every single match at UCLA. He never missed one during his first five seasons in Oklahoma City. He was the bionic Russ.
It was so shocking when he got hurt. It didn't make sense at first.
Up until that point, it almost seemed like he was one of those Robin Williams, real-life robots. (And yes, this is the first time since 2001 that anyone has referenced Bicentennial Man.)
Finally, Westbrook is back, and it seems like he's returned for good. And if the Thunder want to bounce the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs and make a run after that, they have to keep their star point guard healthy for the long haul.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains 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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