Russell Westbrook Returns to Thunder Lineup for First Time Since Knee Injury

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dunks against the Denver Nuggets on December 17, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is ready to return to the lineup after overcoming the latest setback with his troublesome right knee.  

Ken Berger of CBS Sports reports Westbrook is prepared to get back on the court against the Miami Heat following an extended rehab:

Thunder general manager Sam Presti spoke about Westbrook's return in a release on the team website:

We are all very excited to have Russell back. He has worked extremely hard throughout his rehabilitation, and his addition will allow us to build on the progress we have made in his absence. As Russell integrates back into the team we are going to manage the transition by building his minutes over time and will evaluate his availability in back-to-back situations. These steps are an effort to control the areas of his return to play where feasible, given the reduced practice and conditioning time during the regular season. Our goal is to create the best foundation for Russell and the team as we head into the postseason.”Westbrook originally injured the knee early in last season's playoffs. After undergoing initial surgery to repair the damage, he was forced to go through a second procedure before the regular season.

Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick provided more information on Westbrook after attending a press conference before tonight's game:

He was originally expected to miss the first month of the new season. A quick recovery allowed him to miss only a couple games, however, but he wasn't able to eliminate the problem completely.

Sam Amick of USA Today passed along comments from Presti after Westbrook's latest setback. He said continued swelling in the knee was an ongoing issue that needed to get addressed:

The area of concern (in Westbrook's knee) has taken a significant amount of time to reveal itself, and we've been told that it stems from the initial injury suffered when a player crashed into Russell last spring as he was attempting to call a 20-second timeout. That area of the knee has taken a significant amount of time to declare itself, and thus we're seeing swelling and the change in the image.

Westbrook and the Thunder will hope the third surgery will finally alleviate the issue and allow him to play through the rest of the campaign and a likely playoff run without any further problems. If that happens and he can enter the offseason healthy, the long-term outlook would be much brighter.

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As it stands now, having three surgeries on one knee in less than a year isn't a promising sign for a 25-year-old player who creates offense by attacking the paint. He needs to feel comfortable on his knee in order to have success.

He was averaging 21 points and seven assists per game before the latest setback, showing his usual All-Star caliber form for most of the 25 games he played. Whether he can return to that level down the stretch is a question mark.

If Westbrook does make a smooth transition back to game action, Oklahoma City should assume its position as a top contender in the Western Conference. The one-two punch he forms with Kevin Durant along with the post presence of Serge Ibaka creates a dangerous trio.

But that's only if Westbrook returns to full strength. Anything less and the Thunder will have a tough time surviving in the playoffs of the tougher conference.

One thing to watch is how his return impacts Durant. The MVP candidate has been on fire in recent weeks as the undisputed central figure of the Oklahoma City lineup. He'll remain the team's go-to scorer, but Westbrook will obviously change the overall dynamic a little bit.

It's probably going to take some time to rediscover their chemistry and settle in to their respective roles for the stretch run.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how the Thunder manage his minutes over the first few weeks. He was playing nearly 33 minutes per contest before the injury setback. Being more conservative during this comeback attempt could help him stay on the court.

The last thing the Thunder want to see is Westbrook having to sit out again, which would further cloud his future.


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