VIDEO: Russell Westbrook gets a warm welcome in his season debut
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Someone needs to write date and time down.
The moment the game changed for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Western Conference came Sunday night, when All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook made his early return from what was previously reported as a four-to-six week absence, the 2013-14 season kicked off in earnest for the Thunder.
Things changed instantly not only for Kevin Durant and the rest of Westbrook’s teammates, but also for the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and any other team harboring dreams of making a trip to the Western Conference finals and beyond.
Westbrook, even while still making his way back from the torn meniscus he suffered in April, gives the Thunder a dynamic only the Miami Heat (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) and perhaps the Houston Rockets (with James Harden and Dwight Howard) enjoy, and that’s having two virtually unguardable players on their roster on a given night.
Westbrook’s presence immediately changed things most noticeably for Durant, whose burden eases tremendously with the other half of the Thunder’s dynamic duo back in action. We all saw what things looked like without Westbrook in the playoffs last April. It wasn’t nearly as exciting or effective a Thunder team without him.
He’ll have plenty of work to do to manage his ongoing rehabilitation process (and as a veteran NBA player made clear to me via text last night during the Thunder’s win over Phoenix, “getting back is one thing, staying is where the real work begins.”).
Thunder coach Scott Brooks is just glad to have his warrior point guard back on the floor. While others have panned Westbrook’s game over the years, Brooks has always maintained his appreciation for the things Westbrook brings to the Thunder (courtesy of the Oklahoman):
“I’ve been saying it forever. There’s two things he does at a high level,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He wins. That’s one. He’s a winner. The guy plays the game like it’s supposed to be played. It’s not always going to be perfect, but he plays with everything he has every single night, and, to me, that’s inspiring.
“And the second thing is leadership. And it’s taken him some time to get that, but it’s taken every young player in this league (time) to become the leader that they become … It took him some time. But now, he’s our leader.”
I don’t think folks (some Thunder fans and even some inside of the organization included) realized that Westbrook was the emotional center of this crew until he was taken away. Now that he’s back, his impact on this team’s bottom line should be appreciated properly.
My pick to win the Western Conference this year, the Warriors, have given me no reason to reconsider that choice. But they’re going to get all they can handle from a Thunder team that will be as difficult to deal with as any team in the league come playoff time, provided Westbrook’s continued good health.