Bracing for Westbrook's impact

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_Value

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It doesn't exactly qualify as the silent treatment -- at least not from the standpoint of any hostility toward one another.

But Kevin Durant insists there's no reason for him to have a conversation with Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook. As far as Durant is concerned, there is only one way to welcome the explosive and polarizing point guard back into the mix after a six-week absence to recover from knee surgery.

Westbrook, who went through his first full practice with the team on Wednesday, will play in Thursday's marquee showdown against the Miami Heat.

"We shouldn't have to talk about anything," Durant said of Westbrook, who hasn't played since Dec. 25. "We've been playing together for so long ... we've played six seasons together. It's been like 25 games that he's missed. Out of six years, that's not a lot. We shouldn't have to talk. He's a dog, and you have to let the dog off the leash sometimes to just go play. And that's a guy you have to let off the leash."

But will Westbrook's return initially come back to bite the Thunder?

That's the burning question facing Oklahoma City at a time when Durant has taken over in Westbrook's absence to emerge as a clear MVP frontrunner while leading the team to the best record in the NBA. Westbrook wasn't made available to speak with the media after Wednesday's practice.

The team had always estimated Westbrook would return soon after the All-Star break, and Durant spoke at length while in New Orleans last week about how seamless of a transition it will be for both the team and its second-leading scorer. OKC split its first 10 games after Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair damage to his right knee, the third procedure on that knee in a span of nine months.

But the Thunder then ran off 10 consecutive victories to finish out January and are now 20-7 without Westbrook this season. Durant scored at least 30 points in 12 straight games, which included his career-best 54-point performance in a Jan. 17 home win against Golden State. With Westbrook returning, Durant must transition from shouldering the majority of the burden to once again sharing it.

Durant scoffs at the suggestion the Thunder were better without Westbrook, quickly pointing to the team's 21-4 record with him this season. Westbrook also had a triple-double in the last game he played, with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a Christmas Day victory against the Knicks.

Yet there certainly will be some kinks to sort through in reintegrating a player who averages 21.3 points, 18 shot attempts, seven assists and six rebounds a game into a system that's successfully filled those voids in numerous ways over the past two months.

"I thought he had a good practice," Brooks said Wednesday about Westbrook. "We went pretty hard, no question. We did a lot of things in transition; we did a lot of half court; we did a lot of defensive drills, and he was able to participate in all of our drills. We'll see how he feels [Thursday]."

With the Thunder welcoming the Heat on the day of the NBA's trade deadline, Durant compared Westbrook's potential return to acquiring an All-Star talent in the middle of the season. While that might be a boost for OKC, that prospect could create even more headaches for the Heat.

The Thunder (43-12) didn't even need Westbrook for arguably their most impressive win of the season on Jan. 29, when they overcame an early 18-point deficit for a 112-95 victory in Miami.

"Obviously, it will be one of our biggest challenges of the regular season," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "After losing to them at home without Westbrook, you bring in a dynamic player at home where they play very well, we'll have to play as close to flawless as we can to beat this team."

Heat center Chris Bosh said facing the Thunder with their full complement of players is like looking into the mirror. After last month's loss to OKC, Bosh said the Heat got "a real good taste" of what other teams go through "when they have to play us."

Now, the Heat potentially must deal with even more speed, quickness and an elite scoring threat.

"We know what he's capable of," Bosh said. "They're a better team with him. He's going to be running up and down the court. That one-two punch with him and Kevin, that's something you have to really prepare for. You have to pick your poison. You can't have both. But we'll figure it out. We owe these guys."

Not even Westbrook's return can overshadow the main attraction of Thursday's game, which pits four-time MVP LeBron James against the league's leading scorer in Durant. Last week, Durant said he was beyond tired of having to be compared to James in the media and always fielding questions about him.

Durant's point was that the two have accomplished enough this season to warrant appreciation on their own merits. But the comparisons are seemingly inevitable, especially when James and Durant enter Thursday's game having scored at least 36 points in each of their respective team's past three games.

James is coming off a season-high 42-point effort in Tuesday's victory in Dallas that moved the Heat to 4-1 on an extended six-game road trip that ends Thursday. Durant went into the All-Star break after torching the Lakers for 43 points last Thursday, his seventh 40-point game since Jan. 1.

James has tried to downplay the significance of the matchup in recent days. But his actions on the court and the aggressive zone he has been in recently tell a different story.

"Is it a statement game? It's not a statement game," James said. "We don't need to make statement wins. We want to continue to play at the high level that we've been playing. It doesn't result in a win every time. But we don't want to take a step backward going back home."

Meanwhile, the Thunder will try to knock the Heat off balance again and complete the season sweep. Durant is on a mission to prove his team has closed the gap on the two-time defending champion Heat. James won his first title when Miami beat Oklahoma City in five games during the 2012 NBA Finals.

Since then, Durant has expanded his game and altered his approach with teammates.

And the result is a laser-like focus that has been two years in the making.

"I always had a killer instinct -- that's how you survive in this league, especially being 6-9 and 200 pounds, you know," Durant said. "You have to have something different to stand out with. I've been showing a little bit more emotion these last few years, but I always had the instinct. Whoever is in front of me, I always want to do my best to destroy them."

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 22610572.
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...